Nineteen rookies chasing the coveted green Masters' jacket

 

THERE is a story about an old pro who had made countless attempts during his lifetime to qualify for the US Masters. Sadly, it was an aspiration never realised. So, as he lay on his deathbed, he looked into the eyes of his wife and whispered "I do hope heaven isn't that tough to get into."

This year, the unusually high number of 19 have achieved that objective as Augusta rookies. Their total was completed last Sunday when Paul Stankowski became the final qualifier in a field of 93, by capturing the BellSouth Classic in Marietta, Atlanta.

Cinderella stories are rare at Augusta where even the long shot winners, like Ben Crenshaw last year and Jack Nicklaus in 1986, are among the game's elite. On the other hand, Fuzzy Zoeller proved through his victory in 1979, that it is possible to win here at the first attempt.

The 19 first time challengers are (US unless states) Woody Austin, Michael Campbell (New Zealand), Alexander Cejka (Germany), Jerry Courville, Ed Dougherty, David Duvall, Jim Furyk, Paul Goydos, Tim Herron, Staoshi Higashi (Japan), Buddy Marueci, Scott McCarron, Mark Roe (England), Gordon Sherry (Scotland), Stankowski, Steve Stricker, Kirk Triplett, Ted Tryba and Chris Wollman.

It is a particularly auspicious occasion for Sherry, the 6ft 8ins Scot, who made such a superb contribution to the Walker Cup triumph by Britain and Ireland over the US last September. Yesterday was his 22nd birthday. And this will be his last event as an amateur before he joins paid ranks next week, preparatory to his European Tour debut in the Italian Open on May 2nd to 5th.

As he stood in the sunshine, against a backdrop of stunning beauty yesterday, Sherry gave us, his inquisitors, a bit of a jolt by remarking "My attitude to golf has changed in the last month . . .after what happened in Dunblane. One of my tutors (at Stirling University) "lost his daughter."

A player of remarkable warmth and self confidence, he spoke of the impending challenge, while sparring verbally with American television crews. "I'm from the birthplace of William Wallace they made the film Braveheart about him," he said with a mischievous grin, knowing he had struck a topical chord. Then he added "Being here is what winning the British Amateur is all about."

One sensed that Sherry would not be in need of tranquillisers, no more than Austin who was rookie of 1995 on the USPGA Tour. "I'm playing a practice round with Arnold Palmer tomorrow (Tuesday) and I'm going to pick his brains," said the American. "I've been pretty excited about coming here, right back to when I qualified by winning the Buick Open last year."

Duvall conceded yesterday that there was "a ton of local knowledge involved" in making a worthwhile Masters challenge. Meanwhile, Stricker, who earned a place in the field by finishing in a tie for 13th in the US Open last June, will have his wife, Nicki, caddying for him during this special week.

"When Nicki and I got our first look at the place, we were both kinda awed, but that's what I wanted to get over by coming here early," he said, referring to a decision to travel here after missing the cut in the Players' Championship. "Ideally, you want to concentrate on playing, rather than on all the history connected with the place."

So, what sort of chance do the newcomers have? "I think it's always been a little bit exaggerated how a first timer can't win at Augusta or play well there," said Curtis Strange, who will be making his 20th Masters appearance this week. "I believe that when you get it going, you can play good anywhere."

Come Thursday, there will be a certain 19 challengers who will be hoping he's right.