Masters braced for charge of new brigade

First-time winners are dominating the US Tour and, says Andy Farrell, might do so at new-look Augusta
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Where will the "why not boys", as the peerless American television commentator Johnny Miller referred to them, strike next? After Kevin Sutherland winning the World Matchplay and Craig Perks becoming the Players' champion, is the Masters set for an equally unlikely winner in two weeks' time? How unlikely do you want? There is first-timer unlikely, and then there is Seve Ballesteros unlikely...

Of all the four majors, the Masters has the best chance of getting a renowned champion due to the fact that it limits the field to just under 100 players, all of whom have won certain tournaments or finished high up on money lists or the world rankings.

Apart from the first two years, the only player to win on his first appearance at Augusta was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. There are eight professionals making their first appearance this year, including Sutherland and Perks, plus the European Ryder Cup players Paul McGinley and Niclas Fasth.

Sutherland has already been to Augusta and made the rookie mistake of being so busy talking in the back of the car that he completely failed to notice one of the glories of a first visit to the club, the drive up Magnolia Lane. Charles Howell, the rookie of the year on the US Tour in 2001, is the first-timer with most knowledge of the course as he grew up in the town and has been invited to play by various members over the years.

But with all the changes made at Augusta since Tiger Woods' historic victory last April, it may be that experience of many years at the Masters may not be as useful, and a fresh eye, registering what is in front of it rather than what is different from before, more so.

Indeed, the "changes at Augusta" have been a constant theme of the season, dominating virtually every conversation and press con- ference. It is almost as if everyone cannot wait to get the Masters under way and find out exactly how stern a challenge the course has become. In the meantime, there have been tournaments to be won, and while the usual suspects have been in the winners' circle, that has not always been the case.

In Woods, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia, four of the top five players in the world have won on the US Tour this season. Els has also won twice on the long-haul European Tour, where Retief Goosen also gave a command performance in Perth.

But of the 13 US Tour events up to and including the Players' Championship, seven have been claimed by first-time winners. By this time last year there had been only one, and there were only nine in the whole of the 2001 season.

Most obviously, the two events with seven-figure first prizes have been stolen away by Sutherland and Perks. Both are highly likeable men, though neither is in the first flush of youth. Sutherland, from Sacramento in California, is 37. Perks, the Cajun Kiwi, is 35. Both took their time getting to the big league. Sutherland had to perform early in the season just to get into the World Matchplay. He was the 62nd seed, beat David Duval in the first round in extra holes after being two down with two to play, and never gave up until he had defeated Scott McCarron in the final at La Costa.

Perks, from Palmerston North but having settled in Lafayette, Louisiana, also showed incredible perseverance in winning at Sawgrass. On their big days, neither Sutherland nor Perks drove the ball well but just got on with the job in hand. Sutherland is noted for playing approach shots out of the rough. "I just don't seem to get fliers very often like other people, so I can judge the distance better," Sutherland said.

Perks's speciality is around the greens. He chipped in twice on the final three holes in his surge to victory, for eagle on the 16th and for a bizarre par at the last. "I felt comfortable over the shot," he said. "I had played it 100,000 times before, though perhaps not in that situation."

Perks needed perseverance in his career as well, working his way up through the minor tours when the money was tight. A group of friends collected $10,000 to keep him going in 1999. He had racked up half-a-dozen visits to the Qualifying School by then but earned his card that year. He had to go back once more at the end of the 2000 season but got his card again and kept it last season.

"I think I was more nervous at the 'Q' School than I was at Sawgrass," Perks said. "Those experiences and all the struggles I've had have been very beneficial for me. They helped me become the player I am today and certainly what I did on Sunday.

"The way golf on this tour is going, there are a lot of people breaking a lot of rules, breaking a lot of records. With Charles Howell and David Gossett and all the young players, this is only my third year on tour, so experience-wise I consider myself a young player."

The previous 11 Players' champions were also major winners. Of the previous nine, only David Duval had not won a major before winning the Players. No one had previously made the Players' their maiden title. Before they made up the unlikely final pairing for the final round at Sawgrass on Saturday night Perks, then ranked 203rd in the world, and Carl Paulson, ranked 181st, agreed on one thing.

Paulson explained: "This question about nobody winning this tournament for their first time. Craig was asked about it the other night and he said he had thought about it and had asked himself: 'Why not?' We talked about that, kind of giving each other the 'Why not?' " All power to golf's "why not boys".