2014 Masters Rookies Grab Spotlight, but Former Champions Still Among Favorites

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2014 Masters Rookies Grab Spotlight, but Former Champions Still Among Favorites
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Every major golf tournament seems to have a theme on the opening day, and the theme for day one of the 2014 Masters—at least if we go by nearly every commentator working the various video streams for CBS, ESPN and Masters.com—is that the absence of Tiger Woods may serve as a catalyst for a youth movement that may create history this weekend.

There are 24 first-time participants at the Masters, a number that includes six amateurs and 18 professionals, and every time one of those rookies hit a good shot on Thursday, we were reminded that this year could be a year for a Masters rookie to win. Consider the narrative hammered home.

Of course, the host of former champions in the field could have something to say about that actually happening.

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There are three former champions in red numbers after one round, including the last two winners in Bubba Watson and Adam Scott who both shot three-under 69. The third? It's ageless wonder Fred Couples, who shot a one-under 71 and always seems to be in the mix on Thursday at the Masters.

And still, much of the talk in round one was about the rookies. Maybe we should blame Patrick Reed. Is all the attention on the rookies this year his fault? The ultra-confident 23-year old with three PGA Tour titles since late last summer said during his victory at the World Golf Championships in March that he considers himself one of the top five players in the world.

Winning the Masters would surely cement that status, though it may be easier said than done for Reed, or anyone in his first trip to Augusta National.

A Masters rookie has won the tournament just three times in history, a mark that includes Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen winning the first two events in 1934 and 1935, respectively.

The last Masters rookie to win the title was Fuzzy Zoeller, who bested Tom Watson and Ed Sneed in a playoff in 1979. It's been 35 years since a Masters rookie took home a green jacket, 12 years before Reed was even born.

After one day, however, the rookies do seem to be holding their own when stacked against the champions. Counting just the professionals in their first Masters, the stroke average after the first day was 73.67, led by Kevin Stadler, Jonas Blixt and Jimmy Walker, who each finished the first round with a two-under par 70.

Matt Slocum

Jordan Spieth and Stephen Gallacher are also in red numbers after each carded a one-under par 71. Spieth, the 20 year-old phenom, spoke with ESPN's Tom Rinaldi after his round, explaining that experience—or a lack thereof—can make all the difference at Augusta.

"Ultimately just getting around this track as many times as you can," Spieth told Rinaldi, "you start seeing the lines better and the angles, and that's how you can play consistent golf out here."

Blixt certainly had a few great lines early in his first round, setting an early mark after getting off to a blistering start on Thursday morning that included five birdies in the first nine holes. In all, Blixt had six birdies on the round, but four bogeys, including a dropped shot on the par-five 15th after putting a ball in the creek, and another stroke lost on the tough par-4 18th hole, had him finish two shots behind tournament leader Bill Haas.

While Blixt was hot early, Walker was great late. He finished with an incredible flurry, birdieing four of his last five holes—including one of the best tee shots of the day on the tough par-three 16th—to turn around a two-over par round into a two-under 70.

Stadler has the esteem of being the only first-timer in this year's tournament competing against his father. Craig Stadler, the 1982 Masters champion, finished 10 over par for the first round, 12 strokes behind his son.

Chris Carlson

In all, there are 19 former green jacket winners competing this year, and while it may be unfair to use their collective stroke average as a comparison with many winners like Stadler playing for no other reason than ceremony, a handful of recent champions actually finished with some of the poorest scores on the day. (And heck, people could suggest Couples and Bernard Langer are playing for nothing more than ceremony and they are both in contention after one day.)

For what it's worth, the former champions in the tournament averaged a 75.37 on Thursday, nearly two shots to the poorer of the 2014 rookie class.

Zach Johnson, the 2007 champion who won a green jacket in his third Masters appearance, carded a six-over 78 on Thursday. Angel Cabrera, who won the 2009 Masters, and lost in a playoff last year to Adam Scott, also finished his first round at six over.

Trevor Immelman, the 2008 champion, had an abysmal first nine on Thursday, going out in 41 before righting the ship a bit on the way back to the clubhouse, finishing at seven over par.

And of course there is three-time champion Phil Mickelson, who was cruising along with six-straight pars to start the tournament before a horrific triple-bogey seven on the seventh hole put him at three over par in an instant. The hole seemed to rattle Mickelson a bit, but he managed two additional pars to make the turn at three over.

Mickelson got his score back to one-over par after birdies on 10—that included a side-winding 60-footer—and 13 before a bogey at 14 and horrible double after putting a ball in the water at 15. Mickelson finished a distant four over par, eight shots back from the leader.

Chris Carlson

Still, it was probably more good than bad for the past champions.

Scott was one of just four golfers in the entire field to get to four-under at any point in his round on Thursday, but dropped two strokes after putting a ball in the water in front of the 12th green and struggling to a double bogey. Scott did fight back with a birdie on the 14th hole before hanging on with four pars to end his day one shot back.

"There was certainly a level of comfort going off the first today," Scott told Rinaldi after his round. "I think the Masters is usually the most nervous I am all year and it takes me a few holes to settle down, at least. But today I was very comfortable and enjoyed every minute of it. It was a beautiful day to play golf and I had a great time out there."

The experience of winning clearly helped Scott, and it may have helped Watson as well.

Watson finished his first nine at one-under par, before coming home in 34 with birdies on 13 and 15, both of the par-fives on the second nine at Augusta, clearly the best round of the late afternoon group on Thursday.

Watson spoke with ESPN's Mike Tirico, who talked about the run of rookies, asking Watson if he felt more comfortable having won the tournament two years ago.

"The comfort is knowing that you have a green jacket already," Watson said. "That's about it. Every two footer, every one footer, I take my time. It's a big deal around here. You have to take every shot serious. I'm focused as much as I can be, making sure I don't make too many mistakes."

Experience can be comforting, but the unforgiving Augusta greens don't care how many green jackets someone has when standing over a crucial par save.

Andrew Redington/Getty Images

It's interesting, because the likelihood of a former champion winning the green jacket this year is nearly as slim as a first-time player winning.

There are just 16 players in history to win more than one Masters, and while several are competing this week, only Mickelson really had a chance to compete this year—with all apologies to the great Thursday round by Langer, of course.

Since 2000, a first-time Masters winner has taken home the green jacket nine times, with the only repeat winners being Mickelson (twice) and Woods (three times). There have been seven different winners in the last nine years, with Mickelson winning two in that span. Experience at Augusta may help someone win this week, but there's little indication that winning one will lead to winning again.

Andrew Redington/Getty Images

One of the great joys of the Masters is that the field of 97 golfers is so talented, even an unknown player can put together a good round on day one. There are more than 40 players within five strokes of the lead, including several former champions. In addition to Scott, Watson and Couples are Langer, who rather incredibly shot an even par on Thursday, and both Mike Weir and Charl Schwartzel, who each carded a one-over par 73.

Just behind that group includes Larry Mize and Jose Maria Olazabal, neither of which should be considered contenders after one round, but both of who are ahead of Mickelson.

Maybe that can be a nice consolation prize for some of this year's talented Masters rookies. They can't all win the green jacket, and history shows that most likely none of them will, but a lot of them will beat some great champions this week. There's something to be said about that, for sure.

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