AUGUSTA, Ga. – It’s one of the stone-cold locks of the Masters – rookies never win.
The list is short – Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 and that’s it, unless you count Gene Sarazen, who won the inaugural tournament in 1934 when every contestant was a first-timer.
But could this be the year that a rookie joins Zoeller as a Masters debutante with a green jacket in their Champions locker for the rest of their career? Collin Morikawa and Matthew Wolff sure think so.
Morikawa already has the Wanamaker Trophy on his mantel for winning the PGA Championship in May. He’s the first Masters rookie to compete at Augusta National with a major trophy under his belt since Keegan Bradley in 2012. While experience counts for a lot at the Masters, Morikawa doesn’t see himself at a disadvantage.
“I’ve never necessarily been intimidated by courses, and I think that’s what makes this a little, I wouldn’t say easy, but it makes it a little more comfortable to show up to courses I’ve never been at, and just be ready to play golf, be ready to figure out how I’m going to play it, 1 through 18,” he said. “It allows me to go out there and play golf like I normally would. I think in the few major starts I’ve had, yes, there are a few majors, but I’ve played with all these guys and I’ve seen them every single week. It just makes it easier for me to come out here like it’s any other event.”
Morikawa, 24, carries himself like a veteran. Whatever he lacks in experience, he’ll make up for in confidence in his abilities. Speaking of the likes of Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia, who have each played in more than a dozen tournaments here, Morikawa said, “they come out ready to play golf and that’s all they care about. And I think I’ve fast tracked that process a little bit, even though I haven’t played these courses or played the Masters.
“I’m comfortable. I’m comfortable coming out here. Everyone’s different, but that’s just me.”
In fact, Morikawa went so far as to say he may gain an advantage in being a rookie this year at Augusta National.
“I think I got very lucky showing up to the Masters in November this year, having no fans, because I was able to step on to No. 1 this morning and just go out and play golf. I didn’t have to look at the fans line the fairways or see the grandstands wherever they might be. I saw the course for what it is,” he said. “I think that’s going to be really beneficial, not just for this year, but for years forward. Yes, sight lines might change with grandstands, but to see it for what it is, very, very helpful.”
Morikawa is a joy to listen during a press conference because he gives thoughtful answers. But he has developed one pet peeve – he doesn’t like being asked his expectations at fill-in-the-blank tournament, as he reminded one media member who went there on Monday.
“I’m going to come out one day with a shirt that says ‘expectations’ crossed out. For me, it’s just goals,” he said. “End of the day, the goal is to win. There’s a lot that’s going to have to go into it, a lot of weather that we see that we don’t know what’s going to be thrown at us. The game feels great. The game feels like where it should be, where it was before Harding. I’m not thinking about anything. I’m going out there and playing golf, and I think that’s where you want to be, especially at majors, and we’ll see what happens.”
Wolff, 21, shot 65 in the final round of the PGA at his first major to grab the clubhouse lead before Morikawa leapfrogged him, and held the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open in September before Bryson DeChambeau outplayed him on Sunday to win the title. Former two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North touted Wolff as his underdog pick during an ESPN conference call last week, which caused Curtis Strange, to interrupt, “Stop it! That was my guy,” noting, “Matthew Wolff has all the tools to do well here.”
That drew the following retort from ESPN golf anchor Scott Van Pelt: “He’s the 15th-ranked player in the world (now 14th). An underdog is like a 12-seed in the NCAA tournament. You just gave me a 2-seed or a 3-seed.”
North went on to suggest that some of the advantage of playing in multiple Masters – this is Phil Mickelson’s 28th, for instance – may be lessened in this unusual Masters without patrons and grandstands. What does Wolff consider to be his biggest challenge as a Masters rookie?
“I’ve only played in two of them, but just kind of approaching it like every other tournament. Being here it’s kind of hard to do that,” he said. “Every single building you walk into, you see all the history and all the great players that are on the grounds this week. For me, it’s just to keep my head on straight and not get too far ahead of myself and stick to what I know.”
And does Wolff think he or Morikawa or another rookie could end the drought of a Masters first-timer that dates to 1979?
“If there was a time, it would be within the next, you know, few years because I think the level of golf out here right now is at an all-time high,” he said, “and just there’s so many people that tee it up each week; that if they go out and they play how they got to the top of their game, that they can go out and win.”