For rookie, surviving is win in itself

April 08, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Standing in the shade of the giant oak tree behind the 18th green at Augusta National, staring at his rows of chewed-down fingernails, Jim McGovern smiled through his dark goatee when someone asked if it had been nerve-racking playing his first round in the Masters.

"I woke up last night at 3:12, 4:21 and 5:42, to be exact," he said, "and I'm usually a sound sleeper."

As much as pro golfers go to Disneyland every week, life is hell as a Masters rookie.

"I finally just got up, ate a bowl of cereal and came out to the course," McGovern said. "My stomach was flip-flopping. My mouth was cottony."

Standing on the first tee on a chilly, blue morning, this 29-year-old professional from New Jersey, winner of the Houston Open last year, celebrated the attainment of his lifelong dream with the most elemental golfing prayer, one to which every duff-hooker and banana-slicer could relate.

"I just wanted," he said, "to hit that sucker in the air."

His prayer was answered -- "I killed it, right down the middle" -- and he went on to tour the course in a respectable 72 strokes, even though he had "never been that nervous for 18 holes."

In other words, he survived.

Most of them don't.

Question: What do Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Raymond Floyd, Bernhard Langer, Lanny Wadkins, Nick Price, Curtis Strange and Ian Woosnam have in common?

Answer: They're all winners of major championships. And they all missed the cut as Masters rookies.

"Your first time through you basically have no idea what you're doing," said Fulton Allem, whose 69 put him a stroke behind leader Larry Mize at the top of yesterday's leader board. "You aim for the flag and wind up 50 yards away."

A first-timer simply is no match for the treacherous subtleties of Augusta National. No matter how many years you watch on television, you can't prepare for the undulating terrain, swirling winds, deep-drop bunkers, bathtub-slick greens and approach shots to elevated and sunken greens.

"There are so many types of shots here that we just don't hit on other courses," McGovern said. "You can't get any feel for it watching on TV. Until you actually play it, you have no idea how hard it is."

Augusta National beats you devilishly; because your ball always lies below or above your feet in the fairway, leaving you forever uncomfortable standing over it; because your seemingly successful approach shot puts you on the wrong side of the hole, leaving you in three-putt land; because the combination of the tall pines and changing elevation causes the wind to blow unpredictably: Because, mysteriously, every putt breaks toward Amen Corner.

"It takes a long time to truly grasp the secrets," Floyd said.

Additionally, there is the nerve-jangling tension inevitably attached to the thrill of finally wrangling a Masters invitation. (A player can earn one any number of ways, such as winning a PGA Tour event or major amateur championship, finishing in the top 16 at the U.S. Open, or becoming a top player on the European Tour.)

"All those years you practiced, you always envisioned yourself making the shots at Augusta," said Allem, who tied for 52nd in his rookie Masters, two years ago. "I related everything to this place. It's great when you finally make it, but scary, too."

The rookies always are scared -- you can look it up. Of the 525 players who have competed in this tournament since it started in 1934, roughly 90 percent either have missed the cut or failed to beat par in their rookie year.

Nicklaus is a six-time winner here, but, remarkably, he didn't even break 70 until his fifth Masters, his 16th round overall. (A fact that could win a few bar bets, for sure.) Chip Beck, last year's runner-up, needed 17 rounds to break 70.

A veteran pro named Mike Donald had the audacity to shoot 64 in the first round of his rookie tournament four years ago, then shot 82 the next day and missed the cut.

Only one rookie, Fuzzy Zoeller, has pulled off the feat of winning the tournament since its fledgling years. His four straight subpar rounds and playoff win over Tom Watson and Ed Sneed in 1979 was called a "truly amazing" performance by Nicklaus the other day.

This year's crop of 15 rookies includes such accomplished players as McGovern, rising PGA star Vijay Singh, Italian Ryder Cupper Constantino Rocca and South Africa's Ernie Els, one of the top young players in the world. But on a day when the wind was gusting and only three players in the entire field broke 70, the rookies, predictably, got blasted.

Twelve of the 15 shot 74 or higher. Singh (70), Japan's Hajime Meshiai (71) and McGovern were the exceptions.

"It was pretty rough out there," said 23-year-old Danny Ellis, the U.S. Amateur champ, who shot 78. "I was pretty shaky."

Iain Pyman, the 21-year-old British amateur champion, headed for the clubhouse after an 82.

"He was hoping," said his very British caddy, standing outside the scorer's tent, "that he would do better his first time here."

They all do, pal, they all do.

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