AUGUSTA, Ga. — One of the many nice things about the Masters is that it’s always been played at Augusta National Golf Club, allowing for the comparing of eras and the compiling of lists, which they’re quite fond of here.
The most of this, the fewest of that, highest, lowest, longest, shortest. Because they’ve had 76 Masters, the tournament has an arsenal of names and numbers to come up with lists, from the relevant to the ridiculous.
How about this one? According to the Masters media guide, there have been 1,172 players who have participated in the history of the tournament. Of those, only three have ever won the Masters in their second appearance: Jimmy Demaret in 1940, Herman Keiser in 1946, and Charl Schwartzel in 2011.
Tiger Woods won on his third try, Arnold Palmer his fourth, Jack Nicklaus his fifth. On a course that almost demands experience, winning early in your Augusta career is almost as rare as finding a weed on the property. In addition to the three who won in their second appearance, only three triumphed in their first: Horton Smith (1934), Gene Sarazen (1935), and Fuzzy Zoeller (1979).
“This golf course is all about placement: where you miss it, where you hit it off the tee, playing from the greens backwards, all that kind of stuff. You don’t really learn that your first Masters, it takes you a few times,” said Brandt Snedeker, who tied for 41st in his Masters debut (2004), then almost won his next time, tying for third in 2008. “The second Masters I was able to hit the ball good enough to use it to my advantage.”
Keegan Bradley is hoping to join the elite likes of Demaret, Keiser, and Schwartzel. After a tie for 27th in his first visit a year ago, Bradley is being viewed as someone who could win the 77th Masters, which starts Thursday.
“I think he’s going to do well this week because of his length and because he can putt with that belly putter,” said two-time US Open champion-turned-TV-analyst Curtis Strange. “He’s one of my guys this week.”
Bradley, a Hopkinton (Mass.) High School graduate who has three wins in his two-plus seasons on the PGA Tour, rarely lacks for confidence. He’s come to Augusta this year — early — eager to add to his major championship collection. He won the 2011 PGA, and says Augusta National sets up perfectly for him.
“This course suits me for sure, especially if the greens kind of bake out. You have to hit the ball high, you have to hit the ball long,” Bradley said.
He changed his approach this year, looking to gain more knowledge of the course and peak once the bell rings. Last year Bradley played the week before the Masters, then came to Augusta and squeezed in as much practice as he could. This time he chose not to play in Texas the week before, leisurely arriving in Augusta on Friday. He’s spread out his practice rounds, pacing himself — “I’ve been able to kind of take it easy . . . easier . . . try to get out of here by 1 or 2” — and slowly building toward Thursday at 1:41 p.m., when he starts his first round with Rory McIlroy and Fredrik Jacobson.
Bradley also had another goal in mind as part of his preparation. The defending champion (in this case, Bubba Watson) is always given player badge No. 1, which indicates when a player registers and is also seen on his caddie’s white uniform. Bradley wanted to be the first player to register — in this case, No. 2. He got it.
“I wanted to make sure I was the first one in there,” Bradley said. “I was sitting at home [last week], and any time you can just come play Augusta for a couple days is really fun. It didn’t seem like preparation at the time. This is an exciting place to be.”
Like Snedeker and others, Bradley knows that absorbing all he can about Augusta National will eventually pay off. Maybe not this year, but sometime down the road. He played practice rounds this week with Tiger Woods and Fred Couples, who have 46 Masters starts and five victories between them. Plenty of questions were asked.
“I’m just trying to hit the ball on the right spots on the greens,” Bradley said, “and if I happen to miss a green, you have to miss it in the right spot or else you’re bringing bogey or double into play.”
It’s a strategy Schwartzel employed two years ago, when he sat down with Nicklaus a few months before the Masters and received a hole-by-hole crash course on how the Golden Bear (45 starts, six wins) navigated the grounds. It’s why most Masters rookies seek out veterans in practice rounds, ready and willing to learn.
Even Nicklaus needed time to find his Masters comfort zone.
“The first time, I found out what I mostly didn’t know, and that was that I didn’t know how to putt these greens. That was the first thing I had to learn,” said Nicklaus, who made his debut in 1959 and first won in 1963. “After a couple of years, I pretty well figured the greens and what I had to do.”
Bradley is one of a handful of players making their second appearance who could play their way onto this year’s Masters leaderboard. Webb Simpson (tie for 44th last year) is the reigning US Open champion; Michael Thompson (missed cut in 2008) finished a stroke behind Simpson at the US Open and already has a PGA Tour win this year; Kevin Streelman (missed cut in 2011) also has a win this season, at the Tampa Bay Championship in March.
Plenty of players have experienced marked improvement from their first Masters to their second. Nicklaus went from a missed cut to a tie for 13th; Tom Watson and Raymond Floyd from missing the cut to a tie for eighth. All three ultimately won a green jacket.
No Year 2 leap was greater than Schwartzel’s, who tied for 30th in his debut before winning. Now Bradley, Simpson, Streelman, and Thompson are trying to match the rare feat.
“I really feel like I know the course a lot better this year. I feel like I’m better equipped to contend this year than I would have last year,” Bradley said. “Every year you play here is a big advantage. I think it’s going to be a lot easier for me to contend in the tournament.”