“It may be a real special week.”
That was Graham DeLaet, two weeks back, talking about A Tradition Unlike Any Other on a conference call. The putter has to be going. The driver has to be solid. And then, he says, The Masters could be real special.
The likeable 32-year-old from Weyburn, Sask., is among 24 Masters rookies set to tee it up Thursday at pristine Augusta National GC. And though DeLaet’s never felt the pressure of the Masters—he did make his major debut at The Open Championship in 2013, and starred at the Presidents Cup last fall—you have to like where he’s sitting.
Of course, it’s a ridiculously tall order to suggest that DeLaet will be slipping on a green jacket after his rookie Masters appearance. History isn’t on his side. In the tournament’s 77 years, three men have won the Masters on their first try. Horton Smith won the inaugural tournament in 1934. Gene Sarazen won a year later. Fuzzy Zoeller did it in 1979.
But in a field with a record number of first-time players—they make up nearly a quarter of the field—we could well see Rookie No. 4 take it this year. And DeLaet makes quite a case.
First off, he’s in the midst of a career season, having put together back-to-back T2 finishes to open 2014. “He obviously didn’t show any signs of rust,” says his Montreal-born caddie, Julien Trudeau. In nine starts, DeLaet’s had five top 10s, and earlier this year he hit a career-high 26th world ranking.
His game should also play well at Augusta National. DeLaet is one of the longest hitters on tour—his average 303.3 yards is good for 10th overall. He’s also among the most accurate, ranking sixth overall with 71.57 per cent of greens hit in regulation.
Secondly, this 78th Masters could be anybody’s. Just ask Rory McIlroy. This past Sunday, after McIlroy carded a tidy 65 in Houston, the former world. No. 1 wonder boy and two-time major champion voiced the following opinion during his post-tournament presser: “I don’t think it’s just the Masters,” McIlory said, “but golf in general is just very wide open at the moment.”
And how. The most gaping hole at Augusta, of course, is the one Tiger’s leaving. Woods is missing in action at the Masters for the first time in 20 years because of a back injury. Phil pulled a muscle a couple weeks ago and said he was “worried” about Augusta (though it didn’t seem to bother him when he finished 12th last weekend in Houston). Three-time Major runner-up Jason Day just recovered from a thumb injury. One of Bubba Watson’s last memories from Augusta National is the 10 he carded in his final round on the Par 3 No. 12 in 2013. And Rory probably still has nightmares about that Sunday in April three years ago when he fired the worst round of any Masters leader ever—a not-so-tidy 80—and dropped from first to T15. So, the door is relatively wide open.
And while he’s a rookie here, DeLaet made some veteran preparation moves. Three weeks ago, DeLaet took a trip to Augusta National to play a couple of practice rounds. And though he didn’t get a full 18 in because of rain, he did walk the course, and wrap his head around the beauty of the place. He also noticed, as he pointed out in that conference call, that the greens look a heck of a lot more “treacherous” in person than they do on TV.
Then, on Tuesday, after rain washed away yet another chance at a pre-Masters round, DeLaet played his practice round with the only Canadian who’s ever won it. Mike Weir’s a good guy to get advice from, even if he’s fallen to 692nd in the world.
Finally, statistics are on DeLaet’s side. As writer Steve Elling aptly pointed out on Twitter:
All that could add up to make for a “real special week.” And no matter how DeLaet fares, the one thing that’s certain is he’ll make history when he tees it up on Thursday. There has never been a player in the Masters field from Saskatchewan.