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20 first-time participants descended on Augusta for an unforgettable week

Photo: Al Tielemans/SI

PUMPED: With birdies on the last two holes, Jason Day tied for second, the best finish by a Masters rookie in 20 years.

Arjun Atwal will never forget his first Masters round. From his opening tee shot (a high slice that settled in the shade of a pine) to his final putt (a tap-in for double bogey on the 18th hole), the 38-year-old pro from India got batted around like a tetherball. He found both water and sand while tripling the par-3 12th. He drove into Rae's Creek and doubled the par-5 13th. Then, for no discernible reason, he eagled the par-5 15th - an eye-rolling feat good for two crystal goblets and a lifetime of self-mockery. At round's end Atwal signed for an 80 and emerged, blinking, from the scorer's cabin.

A sympathetic spectator said, "It's only a major, huh?"

Atwal shrugged and said, "I guess so." Talked out, he turned and walked away.

David Chung, a Stanford junior, was a bit more voluble after shooting 72 in his own Masters debut. "It was surreal out there," Chung said last Thursday behind the 18th green. "I mean, I've never played in front of a crowd this big. The 1st hole, I had a chip shot, and the crowd was standing about four feet from me - like, close enough where the shot actually could have hit them. But at the same time it was really cool, because if you hit a good drive or a good shot, then you had the oohs and aahs."

You didn't need a scoreboard to tell which Masters rookie had played the better round.

But is rookie the right word? Masters officials prefer first-year player, not wanting to impute callowness. There were 20 first-timers­ in this year's field, 14 pros and six amateurs. They ranged in age from 19 (Hideki Matsuyama) to 41 (Hiroyuki Fujita). The national breakdown was 10 Americans, two Japanese and two Koreans, with lone invitees from Australia, France, India, Scotland, Sweden and Venezuela. Eight of them survived the 36-hole cut, and by Sunday evening those eight had collectively garnered $1,011,600 in Masters prize money. Australian Jason Day, who birdied the last two holes to tie countryman Adam Scott for second place, was low newbie and achieved the best debutant result in 20 years.

If you're a first-year player, of course, you're not counting dollars; you're trying to prove you belong. That's not easy at ­Augusta National, where players are expected to gush about their first passage down Magnolia Lane and genuflect before crossing the Hogan Bridge. Consider the case of 22-year-old Rickie Fowler, who sauntered into the Masters interview room at the beginning of the week and showed his readiness to take questions by turning his cap backward. A green-jacketed moderator got him to turn his cap back around, but not before a smiling Fowler explained that he wanted people to see his face. Advantage, Fowler.

Because style trumps decorum. Fowler, a second-year PGA Tour pro with two ­runner-up finishes and a Ryder Cup hitch on his résumé, takes his daily constitutional in lollipop-colored garb that reminds old-timers of Doug Sanders's popinjay outfits, right down to the spray-painted shoes. "Anything looks good with a green jacket," Fowler told reporters on Thursday afternoon, absently fingering a shiny belt buckle decorated with the die-cut, leaping-cat logo of his sponsor, Puma.

A bright lad in more ways than one, Fow­ler served up the obligatory tropes - "Playing the Masters is something I dreamed about as a kid" - and then golfed his ball as if the ­National were his home course. Fowler opened with a 70 and went as deep as seven under on the weekend, convincing observers that he'll be playing in the Masters until it's out of fashion. Until he blew up with a six‑over-par weekend, some even entertained the notion that he or Day, a 23-year-old with a child's eagerness and a diamond cutter's preshot routine, might win on the first try.

By some, we mean people who don't know their Masters lore. Only three men have won their first Masters, and the first two - Horton Smith at the 1934 inaugural and Gene Sarazen in '35 - did so when Masters rookie had no meaning. It took Tiger Woods three attempts to win his first Masters. Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson broke through on their fourth tries. Six-time winner Jack Nicklaus needed five. Since those first two Masters, only Fuzzy Zoeller has won on his first try. (Zoeller put on the green jacket in the spring of '79, a few days before President Jimmy Carter was attacked by a swamp rabbit while fishing downstate.)

"Augusta National is not an easy golf course to simply go out and learn," Fowler explained last week. "Obviously you don't want to get above the hole here, and you can't stress that enough." Neither can you stress too much - a lesson that most first-timers learn the hard way.

Shaky course management accounted for most of this year's rookie crackups. Recent PGA Tour winners D.A. Points, Jhonattan Vegas and Mark Wilson missed the cut. Oklahoma State junior Peter Uihlein, the world's top-ranked amateur, shot 72-77 and smiled afterward because he knew what had betrayed him. "My iron play," he said. "You have to be very precise out here with the irons, and I wasn't ready for it."

Speaking of readiness, Matsuyama could not have prepared for the media swarm that followed him at the National. Matsuyama, who qualified for the Masters by winning last year's Asian Amateur, is a freshman at Tohoku Fukushi University in Sendai, Japan, a city largely destroyed by last month's earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Matsuyama was playing in Australia when the quake hit, and he returned to find his dorm room in shambles, neighborhoods destroyed and his family scattered.

A lean, handsome youngster with spiky hair that adds a couple of inches to his height, Matsuyama held daily press conferences under the clubhouse oak. "I was not sure if I should play," he said through an interpreter at the beginning of the week, "although I have dreamed of the Masters since childhood. I have decided to play for the people who supported me, the people who are living in such hardship, because it is their dream too." To drive home the point, he showed the rising-sun flag sewn on his right sleeve.

Matsuyama learned of a major aftershock to the Tohoku region shortly before he teed off on Thursday. "My coach told me," he said after shooting even-par 72. Asked if his family and friends were accounted for, he swallowed hard and said, "I don't have a phone, so I don't know about this time. But the previous disaster, yes."

They should give crystal goblets for stoicism.

Nervousness, now that's a given. Some, like Atwal in the first round, succumb to it. Others, like young Chung, try to reason their way around it. "You know," he said on Thursday, "as intimidating as it may be playing a major, it's just another round of golf. You're hitting a golf ball onto the fairway, then the green, then the putt."

So he wasn't nervous?

Chung answered truthfully. "I was very nervous on the 1st tee and the first couple of holes."

And then you had Points, a graduate of the Bill Murray Golf Academy, deadpanning, "No, I wasn't nervous," followed by, "No, I was."

Let the record show that Atwal missed the cut by six, while Chung and Points missed by three - suggesting that self-awareness is what trips up Masters rookies.

But then how do you explain Matsuyama's exemplary performance (27th, the only amateur to make the cut)? Or that of the 28-year-old Scotsman, Martin Laird (three under par, 20th)? Above all, what are we to make of Day's wide-eyed, I'm-not-afraid-of-Tiger, I-should-be-on-TV heroics (auto­matic invitation to next year's Masters)?

Day, the 2010 Byron Nelson champ, birdied those last two holes to finish at 12 under. Was he calm? Was he cool? No, he was "probably the most excited I've ever been in a golf tournament. You're out there in the middle of the fairway, and there's roars around you, and you don't know what's going on. And then all you see is that little number pop up on the leader boards and everyone screaming."

The kid's enthusiasm was a reminder, if one was needed, that first times can be sweet.

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