AUGUSTA — As Phil Mickelson says, you remember the putts at Augusta National more than you see them.
Experience counts at the Masters. Jack Nicklaus won the event at age 46 — some 23 years after he donned his first green jacket — in large part because he had played the course and tournament so many times. It helps to know the back nine like the back of your hand. Mickelson, playing his 20th Masters, and Tiger Woods, playing his 18th, both said this week they will rely, in part, on their memories in chasing another title.
Yet, Fuzzy Zoeller won the Masters on his first try. Charl Schwartzel will defend his title this year while playing his third Masters.
So at this year’s Masters, will it be the sage of experience or the bliss of ignorance? The course conditions may go a long way in answering that question.
According to players, Augusta National has played soft during practice rounds. Heavy rains that hit the area Tuesday night may erase some of the subtleties of the course, especially on the greens. Mickelson predicted there could be a “birdie-fest.”
“When the subtleties don’t come out, the experience of playing here in the past is not as important because you don’t have to fear the greens and you don’t have to fear certain shots because you can get up and down from the edges,” Mickelson said.
“Those shots are not as hard. Therefore, I think there’s a very good chance that a young player, an inexperienced fearless player that attacks this golf course, can win if you don’t need to show the proper respect.”
PGA champion Keegan Bradley, who can boast that he won the only major he has played, knows that he is at a certain disadvantage since he has never played the Masters. However, it might work not to know any better.
“Sometimes when you don’t realize that if you miss this pin two feet to the left you’re going to make bogey, you can go right at it and hit a great shot,” Bradley said.
Mickelson spent five days at Augusta National preparing for this year’s event. He said his time was devoted to “re-learn” the course and practice the shot he already knows he will hit this week. There is a chance that the results of those shots will not be magnified come tournament time should the course not play benign.
Weather forecasts call for afternoon thunderstorms Thursday and thunderstorms Friday, the days of the first two rounds. Augusta National has a SubAir System and can dry out the greens and restore them to the treacherous tabletops of putting surfaces they were meant to be.
“Well, clearly the golf course will not be as firm and fast as it would otherwise be,” said Fred Ridley, chairman of the competition committees. “... Admittedly we won’t have the firmness, but we think that we have looked at a setup that takes all of that into consideration.”
What the experienced Masters player has done, through the years, is share his vast knowledge. Woods this week recalled the 1995 tournament when Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus took the 19-year-old Woods under their wings and showed him the ropes — and the course. Now 36, Woods is returning the favor. He has played practice rounds with Sean O’Hair. Mickelson has formed a relationship with Bradley and offered insight.
“I think it’s just the role of being here, one, as a champion and being here a number of years is that you pass knowledge on,” Woods said. “It’s not something that we hold and are going to keep sacred. We pass it on from one generation to the next.”
They share, but maybe not everything.
“First of all, you only share a little bit, and you want them to know that you’ve got an advantage,” Mickelson joked.
Gary Player said he once went to Augusta National co-founder Bobby Jones seeking advice on how to birdie No. 3, lamenting a left pin placement.
“You’re not supposed to birdie it,” Player recalled Jones saying in a low voice. “You’re supposed to par it.”
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