Tiger Woods’s first absence from golf’s Masters Tournament in 20 years is giving some of the record 24 rookies in the field confidence they can join Fuzzy Zoeller as the only first-timers to win since 1936.
The Masters teed off this morning at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, where Woods, a four-time champion and former oddsmakers’ favorite, isn’t competing for the first time since 1994 after surgery on a pinched nerve in his back.
While Woods is the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world, Masters rookies Patrick Reed, Jimmy Walker, Harris English and Jordan Spieth have had more recent success, with nine U.S. PGA Tour wins between them in the past 10 months. None has played a competitive round at Augusta National.
“Experience always helps,” said Reed, 23, who won two college national titles at Augusta State University and last month won the World Golf Championships event in Miami for his third PGA Tour title. “But at the same time, with how many young guys are coming out and winning, I feel like with the competition these days, whoever is playing the best, whether you have experience or don’t, is going to win.”
Former champions Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit the ceremonial opening tee shots under a clear, sunny sky this morning to start the 78th Masters tournament. All hit their tee shots down the middle of the first fairway, with Nicklaus’s ball outdistancing Player’s by about one yard.
“I think we’d all love to wind the clock back a few years,” Nicklaus, 74, said. “Today there were no butterflies. Just happy to get the first tee shot over.”
Defending champion Adam Scott of Australia and Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland are co-favorites to win this week, with 10-1 odds, according to the Las Vegas Hotel’s SuperBook. Scott tees off at 10:41 a.m. local time with Jason Dufner and 2013 U.S. amateur champion Matthew Fitzpatrick, while McIlroy is in the following group with Spieth and Reed.
Three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar and Jason Day are listed at 12-1 by the SuperBook, with Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson at 20-1. Justin Rose, Brandt Snedeker, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia and Zach Johnson are at 25-1.
The lowest odds for a Masters rookie are 30-1 for Spieth, the same as Dufner and Keegan Bradley, two of the past three PGA Championship winners. English, 24, is at 40-1, the same as Lee Westwood, Charl Schwartzel, Hunter Mahan and Angel Cabrera.
“It helps me when I can see younger and younger guys winning golf tournaments,” said the 20-year-old Spieth, who got his first PGA Tour win as a rookie last season and has climbed to 13th in the Official World Golf Ranking. “It doesn’t take as much experience as maybe guys would have thought five years ago, six years ago.”
That hasn’t been the case at Augusta National, where a 27-year-old Zoeller in 1979 was the last golfer to win a green jacket as Masters champion in his tournament debut. No other first-year player has won since Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen captured the first two titles in 1934 and 1935.
Paul Azinger, the 1993 PGA Championship winner and now a golf analyst for ESPN, said while first-time participants may have watched the Masters on television for years, the course is considerably different when they play it in person, especially under major tournament pressure.
“Probably the most sophisticated and most complicated set of greens in 18 holes ever put together,” said Azinger, who shot a 5-over-par 77 in his first Masters round in 1987. “Every hole, right out of the gate, starting with No. 1, it takes a long time to understand the greens.”
Mickelson made 12 Masters appearances -- with seven top-10 finishes -- before his first win in 2004.
“Players who have had multiple years playing here and know how to play certain holes, how to play certain pin placements, will have a distinct advantage,” said Mickelson, who also won in 2006 and 2010. “Players that don’t have the experience find the ball going to places they don’t want it to go and fighting it, feeling like it’s not fair.”
If Augusta National has firm and fast playing conditions, Mickelson said there are fewer than a dozen players with the ability to win the tournament. If it doesn’t have “Masters speed,” as he calls it, he said half the field could win.
McIlroy, making his sixth Masters start at the age of 24, said as many as 70 of the 77 participants can contend, excluding only a few former champions, first-timers and amateurs.
“There is a certain element of experience that you need to play around here,” McIlroy said. “But you’ve got guys coming here for the first time, like Patrick Reed or Jordan Spieth, and they are going to stand on the first tee and think, ‘I’ve got a great shot at winning this tournament.’”
Woods’s withdrawal has led to a decline in Masters ticket prices and may lower television ratings, as tournaments had drops of 30 percent to 40 percent when he was out following knee surgery in 2009. Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne said yesterday that Woods will be missed.
“Part of what you do in April is watch Tiger play the Masters,” said Payne.
Yet Woods’s absence also provides an opportunity for the sport’s up-and-coming players. The previous record for first-time Masters participants was 23 in 1935, the event’s second year. There were 22 Masters rookies in the 1962 and 1966 tournaments.
Walker, who’s won three of his first 13 starts in the 2013-14 PGA Tour season, said the best players in the field all know how to “pick a course apart.” After that, he said, it may be more a matter of confidence than experience.
“It’s about getting it out of your head that this is the Masters,” said Walker, whose 50-1 odds of winning are the same as Rickie Fowler, Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell and Luke Donald. “I’m here to have a chance, I want to win. Why couldn’t a rookie win again?”