The Masters: Why Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson Have Upper Hand at Augusta National

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistMarch 30, 2011

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 11:  Tiger Woods (L) walks up the seventh fairway alongside Phil Mickelson during the second round of the 2011 WGC- Cadillac Championship at the TPC Blue Monster at the Doral Golf Resort and Spa on March 11, 2011 in Doral, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The new trend in professional golf seems to be the unrelenting interest in the game’s youth movement.

You can’t get two sentences into an article or 20 minutes into a golf telecast without seeing or hearing the words “young guns”.

Rory McIlroy is one of the young guns.

Nick Watney’s win at the WGC-Cadillac Championship was just another demonstration that the young guns are taking over the game.

Dustin Johnson may be the best of all the young guns.

Etc. etc. etc.

Now, all of the attention these young professionals are receiving is not without warrant.  There is indeed an excellent class of players under the age of 30 currently on tour.  

This “young-gun” trend is unlikely to wane as we head into the Masters.  Every “expert” analyst, television commentator and Wall Street executive taking part in yet more gambling through a Masters pool will be selecting the likes of Nick Watney, Rory McIlory, Dustin Johnson, Ricky Fowler, Martin Kaymer, etc. as potential 2011 Masters Champions.

But what a lot of people don’t realize is that Augusta is one place where experience, and particularly experience being in contention on Sunday, trumps just about everything else.

Since 1980, only two players have won the Masters without participating in the tournament at least three times prior to their victories (Zach Johnson in 2007 and Bernhard Langer in 1985).  Out of the 31 Masters champions since 1980, only nine have won without first finishing within the top 10 at Augusta.  

That means that almost 71 percent of all Masters champions during the past 30 years have not only played several Masters before their first victory, but have also been at least somewhat in contention on Sunday afternoon prior to their first victory (contention being defined as at least one top-10 finish).

Since the first playing of the Masters in 1933 (known as the Augusta National Invitational up until 1939), only one player (Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979) has won the Masters during his first trip to Augusta.

Sorry, Ricky—the odds are not in your favor this year.

Why is it that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have finished outside the top 10 at The Masters a combined three times since 2000?

Well, it’s because few players in their prime have more experience playing Augusta National and particularly being in contention on Sunday than these two men.

Last year, Mickelson was in a “slump” heading into Augusta and Woods hadn’t played a competitive round in more than six months.  Yet Mickelson won by three strokes and Woods tied for fourth.

There are two notable aspects of The Masters that make it different from any other major.

First is that it’s played on the same course every year.  Taking into account every subtle break, every wind swirl, every potential roll out in the fairway, etc. is almost second nature to players with a vast amount of experience at Augusta National. 

This gives the experienced players a marked advantage over other players, particularly when the heat is on and guys may not be thinking straight on Sunday afternoon.  

The other difference is that, unlike tournaments such as the U.S. Open or PGA Championship where the back nine is an exercise in holding on for dear life and not losing the event, the Masters is an event that must be won on Sunday afternoon.

Few players have ever slipped into a Green Jacket without going out and taking the championship on Sunday afternoon.

Sunday back-nine scores of 30, 31 and 32 have happened more than a few times at Augusta National.

The one recent exception to this rule is Trevor Immelman, who won the Masters in 2008 with a final-round score of 75.  However, that was a day when the wind was so strong that patrons with toupees had to break out the Krazy Glue before driving down Magnolia Lane.

So, you can choose one of the young guns to take home a Green Jacket next week at Augusta.  Heaven knows, they are playing better golf than just about anyone this year.

But just realize that Augusta National is a place where talent and even strong form heading into the event pales in comparison to good, old-fashioned experience.

I, for one, am taking the old dogs at this 75th playing of The Masters.

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