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Trial By Fire
Sally Jenkins
April 22, 1996
Newcomers to Magnolia Lane learn lessons the hard way
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April 22, 1996

Trial By Fire

Newcomers to Magnolia Lane learn lessons the hard way

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First-timers are welcome at the Masters as long as they don't make trouble. They are expected to be both awed and bloodied by Augusta, and to contribute to its sinister charm. They are certainly not expected to win. To do that, a player must be either wildly presumptuous, like Fuzzy Zoeller, or wildly talented, like Gene Sarazen. Zoeller (1979) and Sarazen (1935) are the only rookies to have donned the green jacket, and Sarazen won in the tournament's second year.

But the novices who came to Augusta last week were emboldened by their numbers. Of the 93 players in the field, 19 were making their first appearance. The profusion was due in part to the weird recent streak on the PGA Tour: In one five-week span starting in early March, four players got into the Masters field by winning PGA Tour events. To put it in perspective, the field included almost as many first-timers as former champions (20).

A naive optimism took hold among the rookies. Maybe they could buck tradition and challenge for the title. "Sure, one of those guys could win," said John Daly, who claimed his first victory at the 1991 PGA Championship after getting in as the ninth alternate. "They don't care about history or who won in 19-whatever, and neither do I. Magnolia Lane is just another road, and I sure as hell don't get any chills driving up it, unless I got my windows down."

The problem is, Magnolia Lane is not just another road, and Augusta National is not just another course. Augusta chastens the inexperienced and the insolent more harshly than any other par-72 in creation. Of the boxcar of rookies who came to the Masters last week, only four made the 36-hole cut. Alexander Cejka and Jim Furyk were just happy to be around for the weekend. But David Duval tied for the low round on Saturday, shooting a three-under 69, and finished 18th. Scott McCarron, winner of the Free-port McDermott Classic in New Orleans in late March, shot three rounds of par or better and was 10th. He spent most of the tournament on the leader board, valiantly defying convention and suggesting that he might be the next John Daly, only with manners.

There is a good reason why rookies do not win at Augusta: It's too hard for them. As Paul Goydos, who got his invite by winning the Bay Hill Invitational in March, put it, "I don't have enough game for this place yet." A greenhorn would do better to listen to Phil Mickelson instead of Daly. "When I first came here I felt like I should be firing at every pin," says Mickelson, who was playing in his fourth Masters. "Now I might fire at a pin in a certain spot, but firing at a pin means maybe eight feet left of it so that I have an uphill putt."

The rookie who proved to be a good listener fared better than some of his peers. Cejka, the charismatic young German by way of Marienbad, Czechoslovakia, played an exhaustive practice round with two-time champion and fellow countryman Bernhard Langer. Langer demonstrated all the circuitous paths the ball could take on and around the greens. "He showed me some crazy chips and putts," Cejka says. So many, in fact, that it took the twosome 8½ hours to get around the course. But the lesson served Cejka well: He was even par after 36 holes, before blowing up on the weekend, when he shot 78-80.

Paul Stankowski wishes he had paid more attention. He was the last player to qualify, getting an invitation on April 7 after winning the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta. He blamed himself for not asking more questions of Larry Mize and Scott Simpson during practice rounds. He was sent packing after shooting 74-78.

The combination of nervous exhaustion from winning in Atlanta and the adrenaline rush of Augusta was too much. Friday, on the 6th hole, Stankowski passed a note to his wife, Regina, asking if she wanted to take a week off. She nodded.

Before he left, however, Stankowski did some sightseeing. Using a disposable camera he bought after winning in Atlanta, he took a picture of the road sign on Interstate 20 pointing to Augusta. He took a picture of the front gate of Augusta National. He took a picture of the MEMBERS ONLY sign. He took a picture of the azaleas and the dogwoods. And he went into the gift shop and bought himself a commemorative glass. Then he scooped some sand out of a bunker and filled the glass with it. "I'll probably be arrested," he said. "But you never know. I might never be back. I mean, I got goose bumps coming up 18 even when I was eight-over."

Beneath his equanimity, McCarron was just like the rest of them, another tenderfoot thrilled to be there. When McCarron and his wife, Jennifer, took their first drive down Magnolia Lane, Jennifer hung out of the car window, snapping pictures. "Honey," Scott said, "get back in the car, or I'm going to be disqualified."

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