Skunked. Double-skunked. And the tough part is yet to come.
Graham DeLaet is in two tournaments this week. One will be televised live from Augusta National and watched round the world. The other is taking place in a rented house a short drive from the first tee, a house occupied by “Graham’s Gangsters” and site of the un-televised, little-known, no-holds-barred Masters Cribbage Tournament.
“I have to help him count his hand now and then,” Jeff Will, a 36-year-old real estate agent from Saskatoon, says of his pal DeLaet.
“I double-skunked him first game,” added Lee Fairbairn, a 32-year-old steel salesman from Toon Town.
“I had one bad game yesterday,” DeLaet shot back.
At the cribbage board they might jeer him, but on the golf course they cheer for their close friend from Weyburn, Sask. There are eight of them, and they can be found each day walking in a cluster behind their buddy as he practises for his first-ever Masters. They wear identical green-and-yellow, Graham’s Gangsters T-shirts with DeLaet’s bearded face on the front, and a Master’s flag stuck over Weyburn on the back.
The 32-year-old DeLaet has yet to win on the PGA Tour, but he has consistently been in contention on the PGA Tour – he has two second-place finishes already this season – and he played brilliantly at last fall’s President’s Cup. As a result, he is ranked 30th in the world, and anyone in the top 50 gets an invitation to Augusta.
That initial PGA Tour victory, people are saying, is coming, and some believe it could even happen here, though the only first-time winner in the modern era was Fuzzy Zoeller 35 years ago.
DeLaet would love to do it on his first try – but so would 23 others this week. That’s an astonishing number of rookies for a major tournament that likes to keep the field to under 100 players (97 this year).
The experience can be overwhelming for a first-timer. Matt Jones, an Australian who was the final invitee after he won the Shell Houston Open in dramatic playoff fashion Sunday, says he found his first day here “awkward.” Usually you show up at a tour event and you “know exactly what you’re doing.” Not so at the intimidating Masters, though.
“I’m not quite sure where to go or what doors I can go in or out of,” Jones says.
Another player making his Masters debut is Patrick Reed, the cocky 23-year-old Texas sensation who won his first tournament last fall and has won twice this year. Reed is thought to have an advantage among the rookies, having led the Augusta State golf team to the NCAA championship in 2010 and 2011.
“Doesn’t matter if you’ve played here once or if you’ve played here 50 times,” Reed claimed. “When it comes down to it, it’s just going to be one of those things that whoever is playing the best is going to walk away with the trophy.”
“I don’t think it makes a difference if there was one or 20,” DeLaet says of the rookie class. “Everybody comes here with the same goal and that’s to try to win the tournament itself. I guess our chances of getting a win are better because there’s so many more of us.”
But it will not be simple. Jack Nicklaus, winner of six green jackets, has said he never learned to play Augusta until eight years after he first won. He went aggressive on the par-5 15th hole when there was no need, found water twice and came second. It was a lesson he never forgot: Stay contained.
Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, the No. 3 ranked golfer in the world, believes a player has to have “a few Masters under your belt” before tasting victory.
“When you come here the first time,” says Stenson, “you still think that it’s a good idea to hit a nice little draw left of the bunker on [the second hole]. But then you over-turn it and it goes in the pine needles and ends up in the creek, you realize that wasn’t the case. It’s a course that I think you need normally to play a few times to get the hang of, and you’ve got to make a few mistakes.”
“It’s a bit like when your parents told you not to do stuff,” he adds, “and you still did it, right?”
On Tuesday morning, DeLaet did a very smart thing by playing a practice round with fellow Canadian Mike Weir, winner of the 2003 Masters. Weir is listed by Bodog.ca as a 750-to-one long shot, whereas DeLaet is listed at 66 to one, and Reed at 50 to one. But Weir knows Augusta as few others do, and was more than willing to pass on what he could.
“It was awesome,” said DeLaet.” It was nice to have Mike kind of showing me around. He was giving me guidance on a few things that other players had given him, guys like Jack [Nicklaus] and Freddy [Couples] along the way. That’s one of the cool things out here, that guys kind of pass things along. You go to a regular tournament and guys kind of keep things secretive. But for whatever reasons, out here you just kind of pass the torch along.”
“I was trying to help Graham out a little bit,” says Weir, “show him a few of the things I’ve learned over the years, especially around the greens, find the right angles for certain shots. There’s a few subtle little breaks out there that, first time around, you would never know they did that.”
They played shots from different spots in the fairways, took some shots over (Weir had a hole-in-one on his second try at 16) and Weir spent a long time showing DeLaet how Augusta greens can play tricks on the human eye.
And all the while the eight guys from Saskatchewan walked along, talking about how their pal started growing his beard during the hockey playoffs and won’t shave it off until he wins, how lousy he is at cribbage and how, no matter how much success comes his way, they know their friend will never change.
“You know,” Will says at one point, “he’d rather be fishing than this.”
And then, after a pause, he thought to add: “Well, maybe not this.”