AUGUSTA, Ga. — Pros love all of the Masters traditions, such as intentionally skipping practice-round balls off the water on the par-3 16th hole and hearing old phrases such as “The Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday.” As for the latter, they hear it, but they don’t necessarily believe it.
They know the pressure will start Thursday, with the first shots. There is no skipping ahead to the finish. Dustin Johnson said, referring to the bromide about Sundays at Augusta: “I’d have to disagree because if you don’t play good on Thursday or Friday, you aren’t here on Sunday.”
Or as Rory McIlroy put it, “Jordan Spieth had it won after 36 holes last year.”
So you can say all you want about the excitement that occurs down the stretch. Don’t try telling it to Adam Scott and his fluttering stomach and sweaty palms.
“Going to the first tee Thursday is the most nervous I get all year, of any event, anywhere at any time,” the 2013 Masters champion said. “Even more nervous than coming to a playoff or coming to the last hole with a chance to win.”
The Masters has become so huge — “I think the Masters tournament continues to grow in stature, probably more so than any other tournament,” Jack Nicklaus said — and players have such a long winter to ponder it that the heat gets them right out of the box. McIlroy, who has won each of the other three majors, said that his starts have held him back in recent years. So he has changed his routine this year, arriving at the site a day later than he used to and skipping the Par 3 Contest (won by Jimmy Walker).
Scott acknowledged why the Sunday back nine bromide got started, saying: “You have these amazing nine holes that you can just picture so clearly and the shots that have been hit and the putts that have been made are ((famous). You know it could be you if you do the right stuff.” But he added, “The first 63 holes are pretty nerve wracking as well.”
No one will get an earlier dose this year than Jim Herman, the former New Jersey assistant club pro who earned his way in at the final possible instant, by winning the Shell Houston Open Sunday. He will follow ceremonial starters Nicklaus and Gary Player and hit the first official shot at 8:20 a.m.
“That’s going to be pretty amazing,” he said Wednesday. “I’m sure they did it on purpose — last guy in the field, first off. I was hoping I would have an early time so I could get out and watch the ceremonial first shots. So I obviously have that chance.”
His routine will be the same as it would be for an early start at a regular PGA Tour event: up two to three hours before the tee time, get the muscles going, beat the traffic, warm up. This will be unforgettable, though. “My goodness. The first shot of the 2016 Masters, by myself. It’s going to be awesome.”
In a way, the Masters symbolically begins on Wednesday morning, when chairman Billy Payne holds his state-of-the-tournament news conference. It was not one of tense, controversial sessions. Payne addressed his own recent back surgery and said that fellow back sufferer Tiger Woods “looked better than me” at the Champions Dinner Tuesday. “I suspect Tiger is going to be back fairly quickly,” Payne said.
He also addressed the possibility that the PGA Championship might usurp the Masters’ place as season’s first major in future Olympic years, saying, “It won’t affect our ticket sales, I can promise you.”