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Apr 8, 2015 4:31 PM

Masters offers a major learning curve for most players

The Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) Tiger Woods was the exception. Ben Crenshaw was closer to the rule.

Woods joined up with Crenshaw to play the back nine Wednesday on the final day of practice for a Masters that is shaping up as a mystery in many ways. They are Masters champions with multiple green jackets. What separates them is how soon they got them.

Crenshaw had to suffer a little before he could celebrate his first major. He was a runner-up four times in the majors, including a playoff loss to David Graham at the PGA Championship, before he broke through in 1984 at Augusta National. He won another one in 1995.

Woods wasted no time. He won the first major he played as a pro by setting 20 records in his 1997 Masters victory, and that was only the start. He already had eight majors before he recorded his first runner-up finish. He had four green jackets before he turned 30.

More players have taken the Crenshaw route.

Tom Watson. Nick Price. Phil Mickelson. Adam Scott. The group even includes Jack Nicklaus, who was a 20-year-old amateur when he finished second behind Arnold Palmer in the 1960 U.S. Open. Nicklaus played that day with Ben Hogan, who also had a chance to win until he hit into the water on the 17th hole at Cherry Hills.

Hogan said after the round, "Don't feel sorry for me. I played with a kid today who could have won this Open by 10 shots if he had known now."

Nicklaus figured it out.

Also on that list is Rory McIlroy, who returns to the scene of his greatest lesson in a major.

He was a 21-year-old with a four-shot lead at the Masters in 2011, ready to be crowned the next big thing in golf, when he shot 80 in the final round. He handled the collapse with remarkable poise, said he would learn from his mistakes. And then he posted scoring records at Congressional two months later in the U.S. Open.

"A lot of that win has to do with what happened at Augusta," McIlroy said.

The Masters is even more meaningful now.

It the only major keeping him from the career Grand Slam, and McIlroy will be the clear favorite when the Masters begins Thursday.

"Everything I've done, all the work I've done gearing up for this week has been good," McIlroy said. "I'm just ready for the gun to go off on Thursday."

The expectations are higher than ever for McIlroy, and lower than ever for Woods, who is competing for the first time since Feb. 5. That's when he walked off the course at Torrey Pines to work on a game that had become so bad that hardly anyone recognized it.

Woods has shown much improvement in three days of practice, including the nine holes he played with Crenshaw and Jordan Spieth.

McIlroy and Woods, even at different ends of the spectrum, have dominated the talk so much this week that a large group of contenders have largely been ignored.

Bubba Watson is the defending champion and going for his third green jacket in four years. Adam Scott is back to the long putter he used to win in 2013. Spieth and Jimmy Walker might be the hottest players on the PGA Tour Walker is the only player with two wins this season, Spieth has won, finished second and lost in a playoff his last three starts.

The question for Spieth is whether he already paid his major dues.

A year ago, he was on the verge at age 20 of becoming the youngest Masters champion when he had a two-shot lead with 11 holes to play. Two bogeys put behind going into the back nine, and he never caught up to Watson.

"How much value do I take out of losing? A lot," Spieth said. "But I'm not one of those people who believe it was better for me not to win. I don't think I would have handled it the wrong way. I don't think Rory would have if he had won. He was saying he didn't feel ready to close that out and found out what he was doing wrong.

"I take a lot out of what happened, but I don't necessarily think it was better for me."

Padraig Harrington is another major champion who lost before he could win.

"The best preparation for winning is contending," Harrington said.

The Irishman made bogey on the final hole at the 2002 British Open that cost him a spot in the playoff at Muirfield. He finished with three straight bogeys at Winged Foot in 2006 and finished two shots behind in the U.S. Open. A year later, he won the first of his three majors, going back-to-back at the end of 2008.

"You do need to be in that situation a couple of times to be comfortable," Harrington said. "That's not true for everyone. But for most players, you have to lose a few before you can win a few."

Maybe that explains why no Masters rookie has won a green jacket since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. Or why the Masters has the fewest number of first-time champions compared with the other three majors over the last 20 years.

McIlroy paid a steep price four years ago and found redemption in other majors right away. Still missing, however, is the green jacket.


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