New generation eye Masters gloryComment on this story
Augusta, United States – Top-ranked Tiger Woods is injured and absent, reigning Masters champion Adam Scott has squandered his past two 54-hole leads and 2012 Masters winner Bubba Watson needed 22 months to win again.
So it's no wonder a rising generation of young stars, many of them seeking their first major crown, like their chances to challenge for a green jacket at next week's 78th Masters tournament.
Of the past 19 major champions, 15 were first-time winners, including the past three to claim green jackets – Watson, Scott and South African Charl Schwartzel, who birdied the last four holes to win in 2011.
World number one Woods, a 14-time major champion chasing the career record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, will miss the Masters for the first time since his 1995 debut as an amateur following surgery to repair a pinched nerve.
But he can take credit for inspiring the new breed, the very people who might prevent him from ever catching Nicklaus.
“We all grew up watching Tiger and you are seeing his generation play now and they are not afraid to go win tournaments,” 2011 PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley said.
More than 20 players are set to make their Masters debut this year, what could be the largest such group since the 1960s.
US prodigy Jordan Spieth, PGA season money leader and treble winner Jimmy Walker and US standouts Harris English, Matt Every and Billy Horschel are in their first Masters.
So are such global talents as Sweden's Jonas Blixt, Dutchman Joost Luiten, Canada's Graham DeLaet, Frenchman Victor Dubuisson and Zimbabwe's Brendon de Jonge.
Few courses provide a better benefit for experience over the layout than Augusta National, where undulating greens and local knowledge figure to make this year's practice rounds a schooling session for newcomers hungry for advice on targets, and places to avoid, from Masters veterans.
The only debut winner since the second Masters in 1935 was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, but that does not keep newcomers like Patrick Reed, a self-proclaimed world top-5 player with three PGA wins since mid-August, from thinking they might be adding to their wardrobe collection on April 13.
“I don't put it past myself,” Reed said. “I'm definitely not going to say I don't have a chance of winning. I feel like I do, but I'm going to have to put four really good rounds together.
“Whoever shows up at an event nowadays has a chance to win.”
- Tiger 'pushed us harder' -
So where did he get such confidence? From watching Woods since his record-smashing 1997 Masters triumph.
“We grew up watching Tiger, what he has done. That has pushed us harder to want to reach our goals,” Reed said. “We basically want to play the game how he has done in the dominant fashion that he has done.
“Just that killer instinct and the will to win – I've worked really hard on becoming mentally strong and not letting things around me distract me as much. That's something he has been amazing at and something I'm really working on. I've tried to take from him.”
No stage in golf offers better drama than Sunday's back nine at Augusta National, a crucible that brought Woods and reigning British Open champion Phil Mickelson their first major titles.
Plenty of major winners are hungry for victory as well, with Scott trying to match Woods, Nicklaus and Nick Faldo as the only back-to-back winners after breaking the Australian curse at the Masters with his playoff victory last year.
But Scott sees the charge of the young guns as well.
“I see new guys out here, full of confidence, getting results,” Scott said. “They are going to keep pushing because they don't have any bad thoughts. They are just going one way. So I've got to work hard to keep going with them.”
Rory McIlroy has won two major titles since a nightmare Sunday back-nine cost him a 2011 crown, but neither at the Masters. Reigning US Open champion Justin Rose hopes to put himself in the hunt as well despite a nagging shoulder injury.
Sweden's third-ranked Henrik Stenson, last year's US PGA playoff and European Tour Race to Dubai winner, still yearns for his first major, as does Aussie world number four Jason Day, a two-time US Open runner-up who was second at the 2011 Masters and third last year.
Another Augusta National debutante is assured of making history as Kevin Stadler, 34, joins 1982 Masters winner Craig Stadler, 60, as the Masters' first father-son duo. – Sapa-AFP