AUGUSTA, Ga.—It’s a walk that makes most men wobble. Not particularly long, only 50 feet or so separating the practice green from first tee at Augusta National. Yet it is 50 feet filled with anxiousness, regardless of one’s experience: Adam Scott, who owns a green jacket, has called the walk to what awaits the most nervous he gets all season. This is especially true for first-timers; Max Homa posited he’d “jump right past nervous and skip straight to violently ill” on the first tee at his first Masters, “unfit to be in public.”
Which is why it was a tad confusing to watch Collin Morikawa make this vaunted trek with the indifference of a barista refilling the coffee pot.
Now, Morikawa owns a coolness that belies his 23 years of age, with the hardware to back it up. He is not your averge Masters neophyte. Then again, this is not your average Masters.
“I think I got very lucky showing up to the Masters in November this year, having no fans, because I was able to step on to 1 this morning and just go out and play golf,” Morikawa said about the lack of jitters. “I didn’t have to look at the fans line the fairways or see the grandstands wherever they might be. I saw the course for what it is.”
The plight of Masters rookies is a known struggle. This tournament marks 41 years since Fuzzy Zoeller donned the green jacket in his Augusta National debut. In the 41 years since that moment, precisely zero Masters newcomers have won. A handful of greenhorns have come close—Jason Day in 2011, Jordan Spieth in 2014—yet every passing spring moves Zoeller’s feat from rarity into wonder.
Why this is essentially boils down to two theories: 1) More so than any other venue, experience matters at Augusta National, and 2) As a corollary, there’s nothing in golf comparable to, or prepares one for, the pressure of this event, a pressure compacted by the roars that echo through this property come Sunday. How much merit these hold, particularly the latter notion, is skewed by your romanticism towards this tournament. To say that it’s nonexistent, though, is to be ignornant not of Masters lore but its history.
There is reason to believe, however, that history could be made this week.
It is a false equivalency to chalk up Morikawa’s win at Harding Park as a byproduct of a crowdless course. His 155 competitors that week will attest as much. In that same breath, it is a heck of a consequence that three of the players that finished in the top four—Morikawa, Matthew Wolff and Scottie Scheffler—had a combined two professional major starts between them. This pattern repeated itself at the U.S. Open, with Wolff finishing second, then-Korn Ferry Tour player Will Zalatoris coming in a tie for sixth and Bryson DeChambeau, whose best major finish in front of fans came at the 2015 U.S. Open as an amateur, taking home the title. For the same to happen at the Masters would be a tournament aberration but a seasonal trend.
“Because of COVID, it’s unfortunate,” Wolff said at Augusta National on Monday, “but since there are no fans here, I think that can definitely change the dynamic of everything, and coming down the stretch with a one shot lead, it’s definitely in my opinion, I think it’s a little more relaxing coming down without thousands and thousands of fans sitting behind the green watching your every shot. Even though they are all watching behind that camera, you know, it’s a little different when you’re in person and you see all them.”
And it’s not just a reduction of pressure. Fact is, you can extrapolate this phenomenon further. With stars like Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods admitting they’ve struggled to adjust to empty courses, there’s a case to be made that those not far removed from the college game—whose events are often conducted in front of friends and family—have an advantage over their veteran peers.
That they see the veterans as their peers is also part of this equation. Golf’s youth revolution is a well-worn narrative. That doesn’t make it untrue, and this year’s Masters rookie class is unparalleled in terms of caliber and depth. Morikawa and Wolff are the headliners. Not far behind are Scheffler, the tour’s Rookie of the Year, and Cameron Champ, who also contended at Harding Park. Sungjae Im is on the short list of best ballstrikers on tour. Sebastian Munoz, Abraham Ancer and Lanto Griffin are a bit older than the previous names with an average age of 29, but they are armed with poise and formidablity.
“I think that if there was a time, it would be now,” Wolff said of a prospective Masters rookie win. “Experience is a great tool out here, and there’s a bunch of really good players. And there’s young players and players who have been out here for a while that all want to beat each other.”
There is still the matter of institutional knowledge, something that wasn’t true for Harding Park or Winged Foot. That is mountain with no bypass. “Shoot, I wish I had played here 15, 20 times, however many times they have played it,” Morikawa said. “I wish I had that knowledge, but I don’t.”
But as Morikawa rightly pointed out, they all start at the same score on Thursday. And, mentioned above, this is a group that favors the bold.
“I think if I had that mind set [of being at a disadvantage without experience], I probably wouldn’t be here,” Morikawa said. “I probably wouldn’t have had the start I had, coming out of college, turning pro, whatever, last summer and realizing, okay, I can come out here and compete with these guys. I’ve had that belief ever since, and as I keep playing with these guys, I get more comfortable.”
Added Wolff: “I feel like there’s a bunch of young guys who have that level of play now and that have proven that on the highest stage they can perform and not get flustered or anything like that.”
Those words have proven true in the fledging careers of Wolff, Morikawa and others. Forty-one years is a streak begging to be snapped. We’ll find out Thursday, starting with the 50 feet to the first tee.