Debutants in Augusta company at the Masters golf

History suggests the season’s first major is daunting for first-timers as well as youngsters, writes John McAuley.

Rory McIlroy, during a practice round at the Augusta National on Wednesday, has yet to win the Masters after five attempts. Mike Segar / Reuters
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Just like their competitive rounds around Augusta National, the numbers simply do not stack up.

The 2014 Masters will begin tonight with 24 of its 97-strong field contesting for the first time the season’s opening major championship, matching the highest total in the tournament’s history.

If history has taught us something, it is this: debutant winners are about as prevalent at Augusta as female members. In fact, since the Masters’ initial two runs, in 1934 and 1935, only Fuzzy Zoeller has triumphed as a rookie, and that was 35 years ago. Apparently, the only green Augusta holds in high regard is presented at Butler Cabin late on Sunday.

Yet this year has been tipped to break the mould and it has as much to do with prodigious talent as the sheer number of newbies.

Take Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed, the top two in the 2014 ­FedExCup standings. In the past eight months, each has racked up three PGA Tour victories, making the duo the most decorated first-timers at the Masters since Sam Snead rolled down Magnolia Lane in 1937.

Walker and Reed have a stellar support cast, too. Harris English, Jordan Spieth and Victor Dubuisson, all ranked within the world’s top 36, may have not clocked too many miles on golf’s main circuits, but all three have a professional title already under their belt. English has multiple wins, as does Jonas Blixt, another taking in his maiden Masters.

They are just the tip of the iceberg. Of the 24 debutants, 11 know what it takes to win on tour. Adam Scott, the defending champion, this week nominated the “usual suspects” to challenge for his green jacket, then added, “but the usual suspects are growing rapidly on tour”.

Undeniably, it is a remarkable time in golf, yet the Masters is a remarkable beast. Experience, especially across what is perhaps the game’s most nuanced track, is key. Again, it is borne out by the statistics: the average age of past winners is 32.66 years, suggesting relative veterans, who know the lay of the land, hold an advantage. Around Augusta, placement is as precious as power.

Only three players under 25 have clinched the Masters and it is an impressive roll call, one that requires only forenames: Jack (1963), Seve (1980) and Tiger (1997).

Reed, English, Spieth and Dubuisson, the torchbearers for the new brigade, are all age 24-and-under, as is Rory McIlroy, the favourite, although he is competing in his sixth Masters.

So while the rookies’ abilities are undoubted, history indicates it is Augusta know-how that counts most, and if there is a tournament fastened tight to tradition, it is this one.

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