By NANCY ARMOUR, Associated Press
AUGUSTA, Georgia (AP) — Keegan Bradley doesn't get all the fuss about being a Masters rookie.
After all, he has a perfect record in the majors.
"So I don't think it's that hard, to be honest," said Bradley, who became only the third player in at least 100 years to win a major championship on his first try, doing it at last year's PGA.
Bradley was, of course, joking. Augusta National is a beast for anyone to tame, let alone someone taking his first crack at it.
Only three rookies have won the tournament, though Gene Sarazen was a rookie in name only considering he was already a six-time major champion when he won here in 1935. No first-time player has won since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, though runner-up Jason Day came close last year, finishing two strokes behind Charl Schwartzel.
But if any first-timer is going to make a historic run at the Masters, Bradley might have the best shot.
He's one of the longest hitters on tour, ranking 15th in driving distance, and that length will be a big factor. Augusta National plays every inch of its 7,435 yards and then some, and it's nearly impossible to contend here, let alone win, without being able to boom it up off the tee. He ranks only 98th in fairways hit, but with Augusta's light to nonexistent rough, that won't be as much of a factor as it is at other tournaments.
And while his belly putter may not be aesthetically pleasing, it works for him. He's in the top 25 in greens in regulation, and is fourth in scoring average.
He also arrives at the Masters on a roll, finishing in the top 25 in all nine of his starts this year, including a tie for fourth last weekend in Houston.
"This course does fit me very well," Bradley said Wednesday, a day before the Masters begins. "I'm going to give up a lot of experience to most players, but anyone who plays well can win on any given week."
He should know.
The 25-year-old son of a PGA professional in Vermont and nephew of LPGA great Pat Bradley, Bradley had made all of 23 starts on the PGA Tour when he came from behind to win the Wanamaker Trophy in a playoff last August. Trailing by five shots with three holes left in regulation, he made three birdies over his last six holes to beat Jason Dufner by a stroke.
"Sometimes, when you don't realize that if you miss this pin two feet to the left, you're going to make bogey, you can go right at it and hit a great shot. I think sometimes it helps to your advantage," Bradley said. "Last year at the PGA, it helped me that it was my first major and I didn't really know what was going on. I was just able to play my game.
"In a weird way, it sometimes helps you."
That's not to say Bradley is going into this week stone cold.
He picked his aunt's brain on handling the added distractions at a major. He's talked with Jack Nicklaus, and he's paid close attention during his practice rounds with three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson.
"I found myself just kind of watching Phil, what he was doing off to the side, just seeing how he prepared," Bradley said. "He's preparing so hard for this tournament that he's won three times. It just shows how hard you have to work to win this tournament. Or any tournament."
Most importantly, Bradley made sure to get in several practice rounds at Augusta National before this week even began. Anyone who gets a glimpse of the famed course is in awe of it, golfers included, and one of the biggest challenges for a first-timer is not being overwhelmed by Augusta's beauty and grandeur, to say nothing of its history.
After watching the Masters on television for so many years, Bradley couldn't wait to hit his tee shots on 12 and 13, the second and third holes in Amen Corner, the first time he played here. The whole experience has been "really awesome," he said.
Come Thursday, though, he'll have to try to treat Augusta National like any other course. No azaleas, no Eisenhower Tree, and definitely no gawking at the massive crowds sure to await him on every hole. Though Bradley is playing with Schwartzel and U.S. Amateur champion Kelly Kraft, it's the group behind him, featuring a guy named Tiger Woods, that's the main attraction.
"It's got a magical feel to it, almost," Bradley said. "That's the part of it that I think you need to put aside when you're playing the tournament."