Arjun Atwal will never forget his first Masters round. From his opening tee shot (a high slice that settled in the shade of a pine) to his final putt (a tap-in for double bogey on the 18th hole), the 38-year-old pro from India got batted around like a tetherball. He found both water and sand while tripling the par-3 12th. He drove into Rae's Creek and doubled the par-5 13th. Then, for no discernible reason, he eagled the par-5 15th—an eye-rolling feat good for two crystal goblets and a lifetime of self-mockery. At round's end Atwal signed for an 80 and emerged, blinking, from the scorer's cabin.
A sympathetic spectator said, "It's only a major, huh?"
Atwal shrugged and said, "I guess so." Talked out, he turned and walked away.
David Chung, a Stanford junior, was a bit more voluble after shooting 72 in his own Masters debut. "It was surreal out there," Chung said last Thursday behind the 18th green. "I mean, I've never played in front of a crowd this big. The 1st hole, I had a chip shot, and the crowd was standing about four feet from me—like, close enough where the shot actually could have hit them. But at the same time it was really cool, because if you hit a good drive or a good shot, then you had the oohs and aahs."
You didn't need a scoreboard to tell which Masters rookie had played the better round.
But is rookie the right word? Masters officials prefer first-year player, not wanting to impute callowness. There were 20 first-timers in this year's field, 14 pros and six amateurs. They ranged in age from 19 (Hideki Matsuyama) to 41 (Hiroyuki Fujita). The national breakdown was 10 Americans, two Japanese and two Koreans, with lone invitees from Australia, France, India, Scotland, Sweden and Venezuela. Eight of them survived the 36-hole cut, and by Sunday evening those eight had collectively garnered $1,011,600 in Masters prize money. Australian Jason Day, who birdied the last two holes to tie countryman Adam Scott for second place, was low newbie and achieved the best debutant result in 20 years.
If you're a first-year player, of course, you're not counting dollars; you're trying to prove you belong. That's not easy at Augusta National, where players are expected to gush about their first passage down Magnolia Lane and genuflect before crossing the Hogan Bridge. Consider the case of 22-year-old Rickie Fowler, who sauntered into the Masters interview room at the beginning of the week and showed his readiness to take questions by turning his cap backward. A green-jacketed moderator got him to turn his cap back around, but not before a smiling Fowler explained that he wanted people to see his face. Advantage, Fowler.
Because style trumps decorum. Fowler, a second-year PGA Tour pro with two runner-up finishes and a Ryder Cup hitch on his résumé, takes his daily constitutional in lollipop-colored garb that reminds old-timers of Doug Sanders's popinjay outfits, right down to the spray-painted shoes. "Anything looks good with a green jacket," Fowler told reporters on Thursday afternoon, absently fingering a shiny belt buckle decorated with the die-cut, leaping-cat logo of his sponsor, Puma.
A bright lad in more ways than one, Fowler served up the obligatory tropes—"Playing the Masters is something I dreamed about as a kid"—and then golfed his ball as if the National were his home course. Fowler opened with a 70 and went as deep as seven under on the weekend, convincing observers that he'll be playing in the Masters until it's out of fashion. Until he blew up with a six-over-par weekend, some even entertained the notion that he or Day, a 23-year-old with a child's eagerness and a diamond cutter's preshot routine, might win on the first try.
By some, we mean people who don't know their Masters lore. Only three men have won their first Masters, and the first two—Horton Smith at the 1934 inaugural and Gene Sarazen in '35—did so when Masters rookie had no meaning. It took Tiger Woods three attempts to win his first Masters. Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson broke through on their fourth tries. Six-time winner Jack Nicklaus needed five. Since those first two Masters, only Fuzzy Zoeller has won on his first try. (Zoeller put on the green jacket in the spring of '79, a few days before President Jimmy Carter was attacked by a swamp rabbit while fishing downstate.)