Phil Mickelson has won the Masters Tournament three times and knows the importance of experience at Augusta National Golf Club, where the last player to win in his first start was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
Experience could be less of a factor this week, though, as heavy rain has softened the greens and taken some of the “fear” out of the course, Mickelson said, making the season’s first major championship more wide open than usual.
“There’s a very good chance that a young, inexperienced, fearless player that attacks this golf course can win if you don’t need to show it the proper respect,” Mickelson told reporters this week, before thunderstorms dumped more than two inches of rain on Augusta, Georgia, the past two days.
Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson are among the golfers making their first Masters appearances today. Opening-round play began under a sunny sky at 7:50 a.m. local time, following the ceremonial opening tee shots by former champions Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
Mickelson is in today’s final group at 1:53 p.m., while four-time champion Tiger Woods tees off at 10:35 a.m. Woods starts immediately after a group including Bradley and defending Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, and before a threesome that features world No. 1 Luke Donald.
Fred Ridley, chairman of the Masters Competition Committee, said that while all of Augusta National’s greens have built-in SubAir vacuum systems to remove water, organizers won’t have the “firm and fast” conditions they desired.
Mickelson said having softer greens means there’s less value on knowing the subtle breaks on and around the putting surfaces. Receptive greens also mean players can take more chances by firing approach shots right at flags instead of hitting to safer positions.
“Unless something changes, it’s going to be a birdie-fest,” Mickelson said. “When the subtleties don’t come out, the experience of playing here in the past is not as important, because you don’t have to fear the greens.”
The only others to win in their Masters debut were Horton Smith at the first Masters in 1934 and Gene Sarazen the following year.
“I’m pretty used to going into these tournaments as a first timer,” said Bradley, 25, who won last year’s PGA Championship in his major tournament debut. “So it’s going to be a lot of learning as you go. Sometimes when you don’t realize that if you miss this pin two feet to the left, you’re going to make bogey, you can go right at it and hit a great shot. Sometimes it helps to your advantage.”
Even though this is his first Masters, only five players have better odds of winning than Bradley, according to Las Vegas Hotel & Casino’s sportsbook. Woods is the 9-2 favorite, followed by U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy at 11-2, Mickelson at 12-1, Donald at 15-1 and Lee Westwood at 20-1.
Bradley has 25-1 odds of becoming golf’s first repeat major winner since 2008, when Padraig Harrington captured the British Open and PGA Championship.
“Last year at the PGA, it helped me that it was my first major and I didn’t really know what was going on and I was just able to play my game,” Bradley said. “In a weird way, it sometimes helps you. But certainly experience is something I’m giving up at this tournament.”
Billy Payne, the chairman of Augusta National, said the storm that came through two nights ago knocked down several trees, including one that crushed a bathroom near the 16th tee.
Heavy rain washed out several bunkers, left debris strewn across fairways and caused some overrun of Rae’s Creek, which flows at the back of the 11th green and in front of the 12th green and 13th tee. The trio of holes is known as “Amen Corner.”
None of the damage will affect the competition, Payne said. Today’s forecast calls for an increasing risk for rain and thunderstorms during the afternoon, organizers said.