Beginners' luck? Rare at Augusta

John Eisenberg

April 09, 1999

AUGUSTA, GA — AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Brandel Chamblee's take on the 69 he shot in the first round of the Masters yesterday?

"Best round I ever shot here," he said.

Very funny.

It's the only round he's ever shot at Augusta National.

Chamblee, 36, is a PGA Tour veteran playing in his first Masters. That he broke 70 in the first round is borderline heresy.

Jack Nicklaus couldn't do it. Nor could Arnold Palmer. Both shot 76 in their first rounds at Augusta National four decades ago.

Tiger Woods? He shot 72 as an amateur in 1995. David Duval shot 73 the next year. Last year's winner, Mark O'Meara, debuted with a first-round 80 in 1985.

The reality is that almost no one beats Augusta National in his first trip. Golfers usually need several years to learn the course's tricks, dips and undulations. Most rookies flee the grounds, humbled.

"I'd heard all the horror stories," Chamblee said.

Of the 85 entrants in this year's field who'd played in the Masters before, only five broke 70 in their first rounds. Twice as many failed to break 80.

Fuzzy Zoeller shot 70 in 1979 and went on to become the only first-timer in Masters history to win the tournament.

Chamblee isn't thinking that big. He joined the PGA Tour in 1988 and didn't win a tournament for a decade, so he's nothing if not realistic.

"I really don't know how the course is going to play over the next few days, to be honest," he said. "My experience consists of watching the tournament on TV like everyone else."

He's lanky and soft-spoken, with a wry sense of humor and an unusual background for a golf pro. Born in Missouri and raised in Texas, he rode cutting horses as a kid and dreamed of becoming a competitive horseman.

"Shortly after I took up golf [at 12], I sold all the horses," he said. "A couple of horses had reared up and fallen on me. I love horses, but when you ride them, you're going to get hurt. And I never got hurt playing golf. So it was an easy choice."

He joined the PGA Tour with great expectations after an All-America college career, but he became a solid, obscure, winless member of the tour's middle class more than a star. He won enough money to stay on the tour, no small feat, but that was about it.

He almost won his first event two years ago in Atlanta, but lost in a playoff. A win would have earned him the invitation to the Masters that he wanted. Did he think of that during the playoff?

"I wouldn't admit it to you if I did," he said.

He qualified for the U.S. Open later that year, and his desire to raise his golfing lot was so great that he played the event with a broken toe. He hobbled along using a club for a cane and failed to make a mark.

"I thought about asking to use a cart," he said, smiling. "I would have put some barbecue and beer in the back."

He finally won at the Greater Vancouver Open last year, earning his trip to the Masters. How excited was he? He skipped last week's tour stop and brought his wife and child to Augusta last Friday, a full six days before yesterday's opening round. His first visit to the grounds came the next morning.

"I had my PGA money clip and started to show it to at the gate," he said, "but the [security] guy said, `I don't need to see that. What's your name?' I told him, and he said, `Go on in.' Didn't even ask for ID or anything. Didn't even look me up in a media guide. He was very trusting. I thought, `Man, I'm going to tell my buddies [who want to come] to try that.' "

Five days of practice prepared him as well as possible for his first round yesterday. His years of experience also helped. Unlike many rookies, he didn't all but faint on the first tee.

"To be honest, I didn't have the jitters," he said. "And from having watched on TV for so many years, I felt like I knew the course pretty well. Between that and the practice rounds, I was fairly comfortable."

He was motoring along at 1-under through 12 holes when he hit the shot that defined his round, a 216-yard approach that almost went in the hole for a double-eagle on the par-5 13th. He tapped in for an eagle.

"When it hit the green, I thought the ball was going in," he said. "That was fun."

He gave back a stroke on the next hole, but made it up with a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 18. He was tied for the lead at day's end, the first rookie to share a lead at the Masters since 1993. The other 12 rookies in the field shot an average score of 75.

Augusta tends to pay back such insults to its traditions in vicious fashion.

"I think I know what to expect," Chamblee said, "although I'm not really sure."

That's a pretty good mantra for all Masters rookies, come to think of it: Who knows what to expect?

Not 69 the first time out, that's for sure.

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