Why a rookie could win the Masters for the first time in 45 years

Wyndham Clark of The United States/Why a rookie could win the Masters for the first time in 45 years
Wyndham Clark was not afraid to make a statement with his clothing choice for the Masters practice round - Getty Images/David Cannon

It is 45 years since a debutant won the Masters. Fuzzy Zoeller’s famous victory in 1979, in a three-way sudden-death playoff with Ed Sneed and Tom Watson, was only the third time a debutant had won in the tournament’s history, the other two occasions being Horton Smith in the first Masters back in 1934 (when, to be fair, there was a half-decent chance it might happen) and Gene Sarazen the following year.

Basically, debutants winning at Augusta does not happen often.

There is a good reason for that. “I don’t know if it’s quantifiable,” Tiger Woods mused in his press conference on Tuesday when asked how many shots per round he reckoned the vast mental database he had compiled from his 25 Masters entries to date might be worth to him. “But I can tell you, that understanding - where to miss it, how to miss it, the shot-shape to put it there - I don’t know what an exact number would be, but it is helpful.”

If ever there was a year when that trend could be bucked, though, it is this one. Never before have there been two debutants ranked inside the world’s top 10 heading into a Masters. And in US Open champion Wyndham Clark and Swedish prodigy Ludvig Aberg, it feels as if there are two genuine rookie contenders.

Both are golfing anomalies. Clark’s win at Los Angeles Country Club last year, beating Rory McIlroy down the stretch, came out of absolutely nowhere. The 30-year-old had been a journeyman until then. But the Colorado-born player has gone from strength to strength since. Clark won at Quail Hollow last summer, made his Ryder Cup debut last autumn, won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February with a course-record 60, and finished runner-up to Scottie Scheffler in both the Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players Championship in consecutive weeks last month. He arrived at Augusta National this week the highest ranked debutant in the history of the tournament, at No 4 in the world.

Aberg is, if anything, even more of a freak. The 24-year-old Swede was still at Texas Tech this time last year - not even a professional. Now he is ranked No 9 in the world. Aberg is an absolute phenom. He won on both the DP World Tour and the PGA Tour within five months of turning pro last year. He made Europe’s Ryder Cup team before he had started in a major. His win in the RSM Classic last November saw him shoot back-to-back rounds of 61 over the weekend. This week is not only his Masters debut but his major debut. Just extraordinary.

Despite his relative tour inexperience, Ludvig Aberg is already proving a hit with fans due his performances
Despite his relative tour inexperience, Ludvig Aberg is already proving a hit with fans due his performances - Getty Images/Richard Heathcote

There are other debutants worth watching out for this week. Akshay Bhatia, who won in Texas last weekend despite partially dislocating his shoulder before a play-off. Stephan Jaeger, recent winner of the Houston Open. But if you were putting your money on a first-timer it would be Clark or Aberg.

They may be new to the Masters (or majors in general in Aberg’s case), but they know they belong here. They are in the top 10 in the world on merit. And while they may be inexperienced, they are also unencumbered by the sort of pressure which can paralyse a Rory McIlroy.

Aberg appeared so relaxed in his press conference on Tuesday, as he did at Marco Simone in the autumn. So well-adjusted. He said he knew he lacked experience but would “lean on” his caddie, Joe Skovron - former bagman for Rickie Fowler - as he worked out how to play Augusta National. “He’s seen it all, and I trust him with everything I have,” he stressed, adding he was not going to put too much pressure on himself. “It’s not going to be perfect,” he said. “It’s not going to be pretty all the time. But if you can somehow scrape it around and not get too high and not get too low, I think that’s my take on it and that’s how I try to do it. I know my qualities and know that that’s probably going to be good enough to compete.”

Clark was even more bullish. Wearing a lurid orange and green shirt - which drew an amusing David Brent-style exchange with a reporter who remarked ‘you don’t see shirts like that a lot’, to which Clark replied: “Thank you” - he basically said he fancied his chances of becoming the first man since Zoeller to win on debut. “Yeah, I mean, stats like that are meant to be broken,” Clark said, smiling. “I know it’s a tall task. It’s a challenging golf course. There’s a bunch of good golfers. [But] I like my chances. I really like myself on this golf course.”

There is a reason only three debutants have won this tournament (two if you discount the first Masters). But in Aberg and Clark, there is a biggest chance in 45 years of that happening again.