Masters 2024: As Ludvig Åberg’s brilliance indicates, Augusta’s ‘first-timer’s curse’ may soon end

Masters 2024: As Ludvig Åberg’s brilliance indicates, Augusta’s ‘first-timer’s curse’ may soon end
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AUGUSTA, Ga. – CBS Sports icon Jim Nantz leaned into the microphone as Ludvig Åberg stalked his 36-footer at the ninth hole on Sunday at the Masters, and he allowed the silence to build as the Swede calmly rolled in the twisting birdie putt to tie Scottie Scheffler for the lead.

“Who needs experience when you have all the shots!” Nantz boomed.

First-timers don’t win at Augusta National. At least they haven’t since 1979 when Fuzzy Zoeller became the third, and most recent, Masters rookie to slip on the green jacket. The Georgia gem is too nuanced, too intricate to be tamed by a rookie.

At least that’s the conventional wisdom and it’s held firm for nearly a half century. But if Åberg’s performance this week at Augusta National is proof of anything, other than the 24-year-old’s genuine talent, it’s the inevitability that a first-timer will win the Masters sooner rather than later.

Åberg gave it a run. He started the day three shots off the lead held by the world No. 1 and played a flawless first nine with birdies at Nos. 2, 7 and 9 to grab a share of the lead, however temporarily. History will note that a rare miss with his approach shot at the demanding 11th hole on his way to a double-bogey 6 cost him a chance to end the “first-timer curse”. But the narrative remains unchanged – Åberg’s week is a testament to how prepared young players are to compete in the game’s most demanding events.

“This being my first major championship, you never really know what it’s going to be like until you’re there and experience it,” Åberg said. “I think this week has given me a lot of experiences and a lot of lessons learned in terms of those things. It makes me really hungry, and it makes me want to do it again and again.”

The “curse” was certainly in jeopardy at this year’s Masters, with a wealth of talent poised to join Zoeller, Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen as the only men to win in their first try at Augusta National. The list of first-timers at the 88th Masters included a murderer’s row of talent, including U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark, who surprisingly missed the cut; Nicolai Højgaard, who was in the hunt until he imploded on the second nine Saturday; and Åberg, a singular talent whose already won on the PGA Tour and European circuit and was a star addition to last year’s European Ryder Cup team.

A look at the purse payout for those who made the cut at the 88th Masters.

“This is his first major, not just his first Masters, and he certainly didn’t act like [a first-timer],” said Åberg’s caddie, Joe Skovron. “If there was somebody who could do it [win the Masters in his first start] it’s him. The only guy who beat him was the world’s best player.”

While Åberg’s talents were on full display, Skovron deserves a monsoon of credit for the newcomer’s success. The long-time Tour caddie was with Rickie Fowler when he played his first Masters in 2011 and alongside Tom Kim last year when he tied for 16th in his first start at Augusta National.

“This place has so many nuances to it, so many subtle things off the greens and off the tee that I trust my caddie, Joe, a lot with, and he’s helped me tremendously this week in terms of those things,” Åberg said. “You know, we felt like we did a great job. It’s a fine balance between being aggressive to the right spots and not being overly aggressive. Because you can put yourself in some really tough, tricky spots. I felt like we did good job all week of making sure that at least you have a chance of getting up-and-down. I allude a lot to my caddie, Joe, for that.”

That’s the brilliance and battle of Augusta National. A Sunday in contention demands a bold spirit that’s more interested in winning, not losing, all the while avoiding the kind of mistakes that make the year’s first major a contrast between heroics and hope.

Åberg has all the markings of a generational player and his performance at Augusta National was no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention.

“I think he showed why [he can win] at the Ryder Cup,” said Rory McIlroy, Åberg’s teammate last fall in Rome. “I think every stage throughout his very, very young career, he’s shown that he belongs. Gets the win in Europe, plays the Ryder Cup, gets the win in the United States, playing in his first Masters, contending on the back nine on Sunday. He’s sort of proven at every stage that he’s played at that he belongs.”

McIlroy’s definition is that of the modern profession. Young players arrive on the biggest stage as fully formed adults and there’s no longer a learning curve on the pathway to greatness. Nowhere is that more evident than at Augusta National, a bellwether of where the game is heading as younger, stronger, faster becomes the standard.

The drumbeat is undeniable. Last year, it was Kim who challenged the first-timer dogma; in 2022, it was Will Zalatoris who made his run and tied for sixth; and in 2020, at the only fall Masters, it was Sungjae Im, who finished tied for second place in his first start at Augusta.

One of the more curious grass ceilings teetered on the edge of extinction for much of a warm and windy afternoon on Sunday as Åberg brilliantly navigated all the pitfalls that Augusta National offers, and his runner-up showing to Scheffler is a testament to both his talent and the game’s relentless trend toward younger players.

First-timers regularly win on Tour and, despite the nuances and an admittedly steep learning curve, Augusta National is not immune to the march of time.

Zoeller, the last man to tame Augusta National in his first attempt, was once asked why the Masters presented such a unique test. His answer spoke volumes: “Can I explain why? No. Will it happen again? Somebody will do it.”

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