Masters is unkind to its newcomers

April 05, 2007|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- -- Some sports events have Cinderella in their DNA. They're predisposed to long shots.

The history of the NCAA men's basketball tournament includes Villanova, George Mason and others. The Kentucky Derby has been won by a handful of horses carrying odds of at least 50-1. Your two most recent U.S. Open golf winners? Non-immortals Geoff Ogilvy and Michael Campbell.

The Masters, which begins today at Augusta National, sits at the opposite end of the unpredictability scale. It doesn't do "who?"

Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson have won it five of the past six years (and many here believe it will be six of seven by early Sunday evening). Vijay Singh was in their league when he won in 2000. Nick Faldo, a three-time winner, was the best golfer of his era.

Masters winners tend to be well-known stars with extensive resumes that include other major titles and in many cases, multiple Masters wins. More than a third of the green jackets awarded since 1934 have gone to just seven golfers: Woods, Faldo, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Jimmy Demaret and Sam Snead.

The least-known Masters champions of the past two decades probably are 2003's Mike Weir, a sharp-shooting Canadian lefty held in high regard by his peers, and 1998's Mark O'Meara, who also owns a British Open title. Both are highly accomplished, but they're the Masters' version of someone coming out of nowhere.

What is it about this tournament that turns potential Cinderellas back into pumpkins every year?

For starters, there's the size and makeup of the field. Augusta National, the exclusive club that runs the Masters, keeps the field small and carefully weeded to preserve the genteel atmosphere for players and fans (as opposed to the stomping mobs that descend on the U.S. Open).

An invitational, the Masters has just 97 golfers this year, as opposed to the 155 who crowded into the U.S. Open field last summer. There goes more than a third of your George Masons right there, not that many had a shot at beating Woods or Mickelson anyway.

Then there's the most important factor working against long shots at the Masters: the obvious importance of having played here before.

Unlike golf's other majors, which rotate between different sites, the Masters is held at Augusta National every year. The more a golfer plays the course, the better he learns its countless secrets and nuances, and in theory, the better he scores.

The advantage isn't so great for veterans at major championship courses they visit only occasionally; everyone pretty much starts from scratch there. But at Augusta, there's clearly a premium on experience. The advantage is with those who have been here before.

Since 1935, only one first-year entrant has won: Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. Otherwise, the green jackets have faithfully gone to golfers who had to learn their way around the course, usually the hard way. The average Masters winner is in his sixth year in the field.

"I think it's just understanding how to play [the course], where to miss it, shot selections," Woods said Tuesday. "Once you figure it out, you see the same guys up there at the top of the leader board every year."

The absence of Cinderellas surely bothers some fans; watching a winner come out of nowhere is among sports' most enjoyable viewing experiences. But judging by the Masters' enduring popularity and consistently high TV ratings, things are just fine as is.

There's room on the sports landscape for both extremes, events in which long shots have a chance and events in which favorites dominate. One of the Masters' core assets is its high championship standard and the fact that only golf's best and brightest need apply.

A new generation of stars is assembling behind Woods and Mickelson, including Adam Scott, 26, an Australian who won the 2006 end-of-season Tour Championship event; Aaron Baddeley, 26, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour in the past 14 months; Paul Casey, 29, an Englishman who starred at the 2006 Ryder Cup; and Henrik Stenson, a 31-year-old Swede ranked No. 6 in the world.

Of them all, the elegant Scott bears the closest monitoring this week. Although he hasn't finished above 23rd in the Masters since 2003, he is carrying a No. 3 world ranking and is playing in his sixth Masters - yes, that magic number.

He's a pure talent, but can he get past Woods and Mickelson and overcome the Masters' habit of favoring favorites?

"Phil and Tiger obviously have figured out the way to get around this course," Scott said. "I'm sure that helps them going into the tournament, but there's nothing I can do about how they're feeling. All I can control is how I feel, and if I'm playing well and feeling good about my game, there's no reason why I shouldn't beat them this week."

History suggests otherwise.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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