Not long after Phil Mickelson completed his victory in the 1990 U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills Country Club outside Denver, he began to think about his debut in the Masters Tournament the following April. Any amateur player would; there are only a few events in which they can garner an invitation to the year’s first major.
Mickelson soon would go on to qualify a second way in early 1991 when, still an amateur and attending Arizona State, he captured the PGA Tour’s Northern Telecom Open. Nevertheless, he’d made up his mind long before then how best to prepare for his first Masters.
He called Arnold Palmer.
“Who else would you call?” Mickelson asked rhetorically. “Especially because I had won at Cherry Hills, where he had won the U.S. Open [in 1960]. I had that connection to him, and, of course, he was typical Arnold, just so nice, and he agreed to play with me the first day I got there.”
That was the Monday of tournament week in 1991. They met at the appointed time that morning, and Mickelson paid homage to The King the best way he knew how. By peppering the four-time Masters winner with queries, probing the mind of a man who was familiar with practically every inch of the property.
“Well, you know me. Of course I asked him a bunch of questions,” said Mickelson, who is preparing next week to make his 27th appearance at August National Golf Club. “I mean, the course had changed so much even then compared to when he was winning his Masters, but he understood the course so well and what you’re supposed to do.
To wit, Mickelson recalled a conversation as they got to the seventh hole. “Back then the tee was pretty far up,” Lefty said. “And he said, ‘I always hit driver here. I figured if I’m hitting it well enough to win, then I’m hitting it well enough to get it in that narrow fairway, and then I have a wedge in my hand and I can make birdie.’ He said that green was such a tough green that he wanted to have the shortest club in his hands possible. And he was always thinking birdie.”
Mickelson claims the underlying message from that day has been a guiding influence since his first Masters, when he finished T-46 and won the Silver Cup as low amateur. He points to that first day at Augusta National with Palmer as a key to later winning three green jackets himself, in 2004, 2006 and 2010.
“His philosophy was to play aggressively, which, obviously, he did just about everywhere,” the left-hander said. “But at Augusta you do get rewarded for being aggressive if you’re playing well. And that’s why I play there the way I do.”
Not every player who has competed in the Masters can share a story about his first tour of Augusta National that is as consequential as Mickelson’s. By and large, however, that first round, that very first time sticking a tee into the hallowed turf and traversing the property with clubs in tow, remains a highlight, never mind it being simply a practice round. Some details might escape them, but the feeling of wonder and awe never does. Seldom, if ever, has a round that means nothing meant so much.
Here are the stories of a few Masters competitors on their first visit to play the Masters course:
Remember, everyone is a rookie at some point
Jack Nicklaus (45 starts, winner 1963, ’65, ’66, ’72, ’75, ’86): My first time at Augusta was in 1959, the latter part of March about a week before my first Masters. I played with a great friend of mine from Columbus, Bob Obetz, who was the best man in my wedding, and a guy named Alec Osborne, who was the head of BBB&O and a member of the club. I drove down from Ohio with Bob, who was a good golfer. He was a teammate at Ohio State, and we pulled into the club, and, of course, we were pretty overwhelmed by it. I didn’t realize at the time that I couldn’t bring a guest, but Mr. Osborne kind of stepped in and hosted Bob. He took care of everything and made it seamless, and we played a few days before some of the other amateurs started to arrive and I’d move into the Crow’s Nest. It was fantastic, and I still get shivers thinking about that first time we drove down Magnolia Lane. We were in awe. And, of course, that feeling has never left me.
Zach Johnson (14 starts, winner 2007): I didn’t play for the first time until Tuesday of my first Masters in 2005. It should have been 2004 because I won in Atlanta, but that was the year they changed the qualification so winners didn’t get in. In ’06 they changed it back. I’m not bitter about that. So, anyway, in ’05 we played, I think, a 54-hole tournament in Atlanta and we played 36 holes on Monday. I got [to Augusta] on Tuesday. Went out with Stewart Cink, and I birdied the first hole. You know, how hard can this be, right? And we just kind of went around and played and then went out the next day. And then I remember being paired with Mark O’Meara. I think I hit 75 percent of my greens in regulation and 80 percent of my fairways and missed the cut by a ton. The first day he hit it terrible and beat me by, like, 12 shots. (Actually nine 81 to 72.) I learned a lot about where to go and where not to go that I didn’t learn in the practice rounds. Augusta National … so cool.
The young college try
Bubba Watson (10 starts, winner 2012, ’14): I was at the University of Georgia, and we went there end of February or early March as a team (in 2000). Don’t remember who I played with, but we played a competition, kind of. I double-bogeyed the first hole, and I wanted to stop right there. I was thinking Can we start over? I was so bummed out because we were all so excited to go there, and then I do that on the first hole. But I birdied 18 to shoot even par. I thought, I played Augusta National in even par. That’s not bad. It was cold and wet, and the ball didn’t run anywhere. It was hard in a different way than during the tournament.
Davis Love III (20 starts, two-time runner-up): Our team at North Carolina won the Forest Hills Invitational, and some of the local members at Augusta took us out to play. I think everyone but Jackie (Nicklaus) had never been there. It was probably 1984. That was a big deal to win that tournament and then get to play Augusta. We didn’t get to stay there, but we got to play, and then I don’t think I played there again until I got in the tournament (in 1988). It was cool, as you would imagine, but then getting to play with your teammates was also cool. It was spring break, and that was a great way to spend part of that week. Basically, the thing I remember is not putting well. Big surprise, huh? And I remember lunch, which turned out to be my favorite thing there. Lunch is always good there. You’re never disappointed.
Brandt Snedeker (10 starts, third in 2008): I was a sophomore at Vanderbilt in 2000, and our top five on the team got to go down there every year with a couple of alumni who were members. I made par at the last hole to shoot 79. You know, I wanted to play great. I had some great moments. I knocked it on 13 in two. I birdied 12. I had a little stretch there. I still remember it to this day. I played the Masters for the first time in 2004 and about eight years ago I gave a speech to all the amateurs there after I won the FedEx Cup. Billy Payne was there, and I had to admit that I still have the robe from 2004—that I stole—from staying upstairs in the Crow’s Nest, and I told Billy that he could send me the bill. I still have that robe, and it’s the only one I have in my closet.
Are you nuts? Why would we keep score?
Marc Leishman (6 starts, fourth in 2013): My first time I played with Geoff Ogilvy. We flew up in early March from Doral and zipped up there for one day in 2010. It was a really nice day. The course played really long, and the greens were really, really fast. What stood out were those greens, and he was trying to help me as much as possible. On 14, I had a putt 10 feet left of the pin, and he bet me $100 that I couldn’t leave it short. Well, I thought that was the easiest $100 I was ever going to make. I just tapped it literally an inch sideways and it must have gone 40 feet past the hole. Big lesson there. I’ve only been there maybe two or three times when it wasn’t during the tournament. It’s the coolest place in the world, and it’s even more fun when there is no one around.
Francesco Molinari (7 starts, 19th in 2012): It was the Monday of my first Masters in 2010, and I played with my brother (Edoardo, 2005 U.S. Amateur champion) and Matteo Manassero was there as well. I had been on the course before when my brother needed me to caddie (in 2006), but I didn’t play it until then. That first day you’re just absorbing the atmosphere and hopefully learning the golf course. None of us really knew what we were doing, so we just tried to enjoy being out there. To have seen it so many times on TV, and then you’re out there hitting the shots, it’s just something to experience.
Louis Oosthuizen (10 starts, lost playoff in 2012): It was 2009 and I played with Gary Player and Trevor Immelman (defending champion that year). It was Monday, just nine holes, tournament week. That first round that you have, you don’t think much about what you’re shooting. But you remember everything about what you’re seeing because it’s familiar from watching it on TV so many times. It’s pretty cool to see those shots for real that you have watched before on television. For every first-timer if you’re worrying about a golf score you’re missing a lot because you should just be taking it in and just enjoy going around. I definitely picked Gary’s brain on some putts, and Trevor on some other things. I took their advice on a few things, and it helped me a lot, I thought.
Henrik Stenson (13 starts, fifth in 2018): It would have been in 2006, and I had Grant Berry on the bag, and we went right before playing the tour stop in Atlanta. It’s all the normal stuff that everyone talks about, driving up Magnolia Lane, seeing the undulations on the course. It’s more than you ever think when you’re watching it on television as a kid. It’s a special place, and seeing it in person the first time definitely makes a strong impression. I think I was choking a little just playing a practice round.
I couldn’t drive yet, but I could drive there
Charles Howell III (8 starts, 14th in 2004): I remember it like yesterday, but it was far from that. I was 10 years old. I played with my dad, a friend of his from Charlotte, and a heart surgeon who was a member who has since passed away. It was in the fall, and we played the way, way up tees and I shot 79. It was awesome. I still have a picture from that day at the house. I’ve always had a healthy fear of Augusta National, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Having walked around that golf course so many times watching the Masters, being there sunup to sundown seven days, I’ve seen everything that can go good and go bad on that golf course. Playing the Masters still feels weird to me even all these years later.
I could drive, but not in there
Keegan Bradley (5 starts, 22nd in 2015): I remember the first time I played Augusta really well because I brought my dad with me. We played with Fleming Normal, who has been a member there for forever. It was the first time either of us had ever been on the grounds. You know, the first time you play Augusta, you go around and say to yourself, Oh, this is where Tiger chipped in, or where Phil hit it through the trees onto the green. It’s kind of weird in a way to be out there because you can see so much of the golf course. You can stand on one part of the course and, say, see 16 out there in the distance. You know, it’s what you dream about. Now the first time I ever went to Augusta I was playing a Hooters Tour event in McCormick, S.C., and it’s a 20-minute drive, so after my early tee time on Thursday, I got a sandwich and got in my car and drove to this grocery store, that was across the street from the course. A Piggly Wiggly or something. I parked my car so I could see directly down Magnolia Lane and just sat there eating my sandwich. And I remember how jealous I was of the people pulling in there, thinking how lucky they were. Obviously, I said to myself I hope one day I’ll be able to drive down there and play.
The weather outside was frightful, but …
Pat Perez (4 starts, 18th in 2018):__ It was windy and miserable and cold, and me and my caddie were the only people out there. Couldn’t have been 35 degrees. It was about a week or two before the Masters, and if it had been anywhere else, I would not have played. But first time, at that place … we were going. You see it on TV every year, and you can’t wait to see those holes in person. It didn’t matter what I shot or how I played, it was just the experience, as shitty as it was out there. It was so cold, that I hit a 6-iron at No. 12. I remember that. So how much did you think I learned? It was brutal. Didn’t matter.
Rory McIlroy (10 starts, fourth in 2015): It was a cold, windy, day in March, and it was just the most awesome experience. Driving down Magnolia Lane, going into the clubhouse, having breakfast, walking out the back, under the tree, 18th green, ninth green, down to the second, down to the seventh, all the way down to the like on 15. It’s just such a special place. Once I started playing I was afraid to take a divot the first few holes. Johnny Harris from Quail Hollow hosted me. Just a cool experience, a cool day. And I honestly, I think it’s only been the last couple of years that I’ve really become comfortable at Augusta in terms of knowing the staff, getting to know some of the members. I think that’s the reason why I’ve consistently played better there over the last few years.
No, really, this is just another day on a golf course
Jim Furyk (20 starts, fourth twice): The thing that stands out the most about that day is that … now I had never done this before, but I went to warm up on the range, and after about eight balls I declared to myself well, I think I’m ready. I couldn’t wait to get out there. I just took off. I was by myself on the weekend before (the tournament), I think it was Saturday. I was more excited for that round of golf than any other round in my life. It’s not even close. I don’t remember what I shot. I don’t remember if I even kept score. I don’t remember much about it, frankly. It was all kind of a blur. I was 25 and totally overwhelmed by it.
Curtis Strange (20 starts, runner-up in 1985): I showed up on Sunday before the tournament, driving up Magnolia Lane in my old yellow Nova, and I went straight to the course, didn’t hit any balls. I headed to the putting green, and Jack Nicklaus was there. He was getting ready to go out with George Burns (another amateur). I just said hello. It was a little intimidating. I don’t think I went out with anyone that first day, but in the first round who do I get paired with? Jack Nicklaus. So, it was good that I had gotten the first meeting out of the way on Sunday. I could barely keep my hand from shaking as I tried to put my ball on the tee on the first hole. But he couldn’t have been nicer as I kind of struggled. I shot 75 and he shot 68, and he hit every green in regulation but took 36 putts—just birdied the par-5s. What a lesson that was in ball-striking.
Graeme McDowell: (9 starts, 12th in 2012): I flew up there a month before the tournament in 2005 with Ian Poulter. It was an overcast day, the course was kind of soft-ish, but what a special day that was. The course was slow, too, even the greens, if you can believe that. They weren’t slow; it was just that you hear so much about how fast the greens really are, so by comparison they were slow. But it was shocking a month later how fast they had gotten. I wasn’t ready, and it showed because I played with Ben Crenshaw in the first two rounds and on the first day I think I three-putted five times in the first 10 holes. I felt like I was a 20-handicap next to him. He was like an artist, and I looked like a kid who spilled paint all over the table. But I knew right then and there it would be my favorite course in the world. I love the place.
‘You know, go straight to the top’
Ernie Els (23 starts, two-time runner-up): I played with Gary Player on Monday, I think. You know, go straight to the top. Learned a lot, and was just in awe of being there with Gary at Augusta National and thinking this is it. It doesn’t get much better. I was so overwhelmed I don’t actually remember much about it except that it was pretty sweet doing that. But it must have rubbed off somewhat. In the second round, I was paired with Ben Crenshaw and shot 67 and (eventually) finished pretty high up (T-8), and after we got done he told me, You’re going to win this tournament numerous times, and I thought, Wow. God, I hope so. And you know the history of that.
Paul Azinger (15 starts, fifth in 1998): My first round ever was with Arnold Palmer. I had known Arnold since I was 19 because I worked at Bay Hill as a cart runner. I got to know him a bit then, and then I got paired with Arnold at the U.S. Open qualifier at Bay Hill (in 1986) and he remembered me that day, and we just hit it off. Later on, I used to seek his advice. I picked his brain all day. We were on 13, and I was sizing up a shot and I asked him, Would you play aggressively from here? And he looked at me like, What do you think? I’ve had a lot of good practice rounds through the years, some great ones with Ben Crenshaw. But nothing ever really beat that day.