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Triumph of experience over youth is norm but not a given

In 77 editions of the Masters Tournament so far, only one person in the past 75 years has won it in his first appearance at the event.

Fuzzy Zoeller was 27 years old in 1979 and as surprised as anyone when he pulled on the green jacket after a play-off with Ed Sneed and Tom Watson.

It is a moot point in this 78th Masters, with a few players among this year's record 24 rookies threatening to make an impact after the opening two rounds, not least Scotland's Stephen Gallacher. But nor to seasoned Masters watchers has this debutant devilry come as a total surprise, with 14 of the first-timers Gallacher, are already placed among the world's top 60.

"There are a lot of impressive new players out there with some amazing talent," said the tournament chairman, Billy Payne.

However, history appears to tell us that experience is everything at Augusta National. "The fact is, the course offers the most complicated set of greens over 18 holes ever put together," said Paul Azinger. "I think it takes a long time to understand the greens."

Given the subtlety of this beautiful course, for some players the only advice that can be given about is to actually play the event. Kevin Stadler, forming the first father-son combo to play in a Masters with his father Craig, the 1982 champion, said: "I think my dad wanted me to find out about the place for myself. I don't think you can figure out the right spots here until you've hit the ball in there. It's something that only comes with experience."

Closer to home in Scotland we have the best testimony of any golfer going to play the Masters for a first time. Ten years ago Forfar's Stuart Wilson won the Amateur Championship and duly qualified to play at Augusta in 2005. It would be his first and last experience of it.

"When I qualified to play the Masters after winning the Amateur, I arranged to go and play the course a few times in the February before the tournament," Wilson said. "I wanted to try to take the awe factor out of it. But it was cold and windy at that time in Georgia and by the time April came along Augusta National seemed a very different golf course.

"I think a first-timer goes there with high expectations. You read about the Masters, you know the history, and basically you think you know the place, especially the back nine from watching it on TV. But in one way you can give the place too much respect because of its aura: for example you over-borrow on putts, just because you're at Augusta."

Wilson shot two rounds of 82 and inevitably missed the cut. "But I did play on the weekend in a Masters, as I keep reminding people," he says with a smile. "There was bad weather on the Friday and the second round was delayed. I had to play my final nine holes on the Saturday morning. I was gutted when my final putt dropped."

The average age of a Masters winner is 32.66 years. Phil Mickelson, surely as gifted as they come, and a four-time Masters champion, was competing for a 12th time when he finally won a green jacket in 2004. Zoeller apart, there are a few exceptions, such as Tiger Woods, a Masters champion at only his third attempt in 1997. Last year Adam Scott was competing in his 11th Masters before he finally became champion.

Scott spoke fairly candidly of the effect coming to Augusta has had on him for a number of years, never mind his first time. "Over the opening holes of the Masters I'm about as nervous as I've ever felt on a golf course," the Australian said. "It is just everything about this place - it's hard to stay calm. In truth, it's only winning it last year that has it taken a little bit of the pressure off me."

Against this backdrop, there has been intrigue over how many of this year's rookies could make an impact, especially with some - Stadler and Gallacher among them - getting off to a decent start over two rounds. Gallacher has been typical of this early charge, going to three under par through nine holes on Thursday before carding a 71. Yesterday, the 39-year-old shot a level-par 72 to ensure he remains very much in contention going into the weekend at one-under.

Yet the classic case of experience being all at Augusta is seen most sharply in Fred Couples. This languid 54-year-old American can fail anywhere else in world golf but, come springtime at the Masters, Couples seems to play like he has neither aged nor wearied since his win here back in 1992.

Couples shot a 71 on Thursday and was prominent once more on the early leaderboard at his 30th Masters. He followed that up yesterday with another impressive 71. In his last four Masters Couples has gone into the weekend placed among the top 10. "Could a 50-year old win the Masters?" Couples mused. "I think so."

Experience seems to count for a lot in this tournament. But, as this 78th Masters has shown, so does talented youth. An enthralling weekend awaits.

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