Unless a late straggler slips in, there will be 18 first-time players at the Masters this year. It sounds like a big number, and it is, but last year Augusta National hosted 24 rookies, a modern record. Some of the new guys this year are at least faintly famous. We refer to Morgan Hoffmann, Brooks Koepka and Shane Lowry, to name just three. You could imagine any of them contending and even winning. There are others in the first-timer’s club—including amateurs Corey Conners, Bradley Neil and Byron Meth—who are far more obscure, and for many of them making the cut would be a significant accomplishment.
The last amateur to win the Masters is … nobody. The last player to win on his first trip to Augusta was Fuzzy Zoeller, in 1979. That first year Fuzzy was in the downstairs members’ locker room in the cozy Augusta National clubhouse. The next year he was on the second floor, with Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, in the changing room reserved for Masters champions.
So 18 gents, most of them in club-issued Mercedes-Benz courtesy cars, will be making their first drive down Magnolia Lane. Upon arrival a club steward will show each of them to that downstairs locker room, with its excellent selection of treats and plush carpeting and a view of the 1st tee. They will move into wood-door lockers normally reserved for Warren Buffett, Lynn Swann, Billy Payne and other Augusta National members. They will look around, most likely in some awe. But eventually that awe will wear off, and right about then they might ask themselves a logical question: Where the heck is everybody?
Since 2010, and more so every year, the locker room has become a ghost town. It’s the province of rookies almost the way the upstairs room is the province of former champs. That’s because five years ago Augusta National opened its spiffy new 400-yard-long, 18-acre driving range and at the far end of it built the caddie shack to end all caddie shacks. Each caddie gets a locker. There’s club storage, all manner of hot and cold food, showers and multiple TVs. Rory McIlroy was in the place for hours last year, watching soccer and golf.
In this age of golf shoes with rubber nubs that make them look more like sneakers, a growing number of players drive down Magnolia Lane ready for golf, park in an area adjacent to the range, go to this informal clubhouse, grab some food and get to work. Stewart Cink was one of the first players to make this part of his Augusta routine.
Bernhard Langer and Fred Couples and Vijay Singh still use the main clubhouse and its champions’ locker room. Erik Compton, Seung-Yul Noh and Gunn Yang, all rookies, will be in the clubhouse too. But a wily veteran like Tim Clark? He could go the whole week without setting foot in it.