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40 years ago Fuzzy Zoeller defied odds, won Masters in first try

Posted March 07, 2019 03:03 pm
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40 years ago Fuzzy Zoeller defied odds, won Masters in first try

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    Fuzzy Zoeller puts on the green jacket after winning the 1979 Masters Tournament. Arnold Palmer, right, and Gary Player, left, look on. (File)

First-time participants in majors rarely make much of an impact.

They are expected to show up, perhaps make the 36-hole cut and go quietly about their business. To get into contention would be a bonus.

To actually win is virtually unheard of, Ben Curtis and Keegan Bradley being the exceptions. Their victories in the 2003 British Open and 2011 PGA, respectively, were their first starts in major championships.

Frank Urban Zoeller, affectionately known as Fuzzy by his peers, paid little attention to the conventional wisdom.

The native of New Albany, Ind., got into contention at the 1979 Masters, hung around to the end and won a historic playoff in his first visit to Augusta National Golf Club.

Zoeller joined Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen as the only men to win the Masters in their first attempts. Smith won the inaugural event in 1934, and Sarazen, already one of the game’s established stars, won a year later with his famous double eagle on the 15th hole.

Ed Sneed, who was only slightly better known than Zoeller coming into the 1979 Masters, appeared to be on his way to his first major title. His first three rounds of 68, 67 and 69 put him five shots clear of the field heading into Sunday.

And for 15 holes, Sneed appeared to be a good bet to slip on a green jacket. Despite charges by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, Sneed still had a three-stroke lead with three holes to play.

A three-putt for bogey cost Sneed a shot at the 16th, then he missed a short par putt on the 17th. Suddenly, his lead was down to one.

Sneed hit the fairway on the 18th, but his approach finished next to the greenside bunker. He chipped to about eight feet below the hole, then watched in disbelief as his putt hung on the lip, refusing to drop for par and the win.

Zoeller, meanwhile, had finished with 70 to join Watson and Sneed in the Masters’ first sudden-death playoff.

Like Sarazen 44 years before, Zoeller took a risk on the 15th hole to help force the playoff. He went for the green in two, even though the shot was longer than the distance he normally hit his 3-wood.

“Now, I’ll tell you exactly how far I can hit a 3-wood. I can hit it 235 yards without any wind,” Zoeller later told reporters. “I don’t know how it got there.”

The playoff began on the 10th hole, and all three men made par to advance to the 11th.

Zoeller hit the biggest drive, then watched as Sneed’s approach flew into the back bunker and Watson’s came up wide right. The Masters rookie then calmly hit his iron shot to inside 10 feet.

“Two balls right and don’t leave it short,” was caddie Jariah Beard’s advice for Zoeller, according to Ward Clayton’s book Men on the Bag, which chronicles the stories of Augusta National caddies.

After watching Sneed and Watson play, Zoeller coolly rolled his birdie putt into the cup and earned his place in history. He flung his putter into the air and jumped for joy with outstretched arms.

“I’m on cloud nine, and I guess I’ll be up there for three or four weeks,” Zoeller said afterward.

He had extra motivation for making the birdie to end the playoff on the 11th hole.

“I said if I don’t make it, we have to play No. 12, which I don’t want to do,” Zoeller told the media corps. “I’m 3-over-par there this week.”

Zoeller, who retired from Masters competition in 2009, thinks someone will come along and join him, Smith and Sarazen as Masters winners in their Augusta debut. In 2014, Jordan Spieth almost joined the club after sharing the lead going into the final round.

“You never say never,” Zoeller said. “It is amazing when you think about all the talent that has walked through from that practice range to that first tee and it hasn’t happened.

“Can I explain why? No. Will it happen again? Somebody will do it.”

1939

ralph guldahl

Ralph Guldahl didn’t want to be a Masters bridesmaid for the third consecutive year.

In 1937, Guldahl became part of Masters lore – for the wrong reason – when he let Byron Nelson make up six strokes on him at Nos. 12 and 13. Nelson went on to win and have the bridge at No. 13 tee named in his honor.

A year later, Guldahl couldn’t catch Henry Picard and wound up in second place again.

So Guldahl took matters into his own hands on the final nine in 1939. He shot 3-under-par 33 to edge Sam Snead by a stroke, and his winning total of 279 would not be eclipsed until 1953.

1949

sam snead

Sam Snead’s prospects for winning his first Masters didn’t look very good after he opened with rounds of 73 and 75.

They improved somewhat after his 67 in the third round, but he still had to catch 54-hole leader Johnny Palmer.

A final-round 67 by Snead was all he needed. The strong finish gave him a comfortable three-shot margin over runners-up Johnny Bulla and Lloyd Mangrum.

Snead was the first Masters winner to take home a green jacket, and that tradition is still alive and well 70 years later.

1959

art wall jr

Art Wall Jr. started the final round six shots behind co-leaders Stan Leonard and Arnold Palmer. What ensued was one of the most dazzling displays of golf in tournament history.

He made up ground by shooting 34 on the front nine, but a three-putt bogey at the 10th halted his momentum.

After making pars at Nos. 11 and 12, Wall began his birdie streak. He two-putted Nos. 13 and 15 for birdies, and ran in a 20-foot putt at the 14th. After a par at the 16th, Wall made another birdie at the 17th from 15 feet.

Coming to the final hole, Wall knew he was ahead of Leonard and Palmer. But Cary Middlecoff had made an eagle on the 15th, and that tied him with Wall for the lead.

Wall’s 8-iron approach at No. 18 left him an 11-foot putt for birdie. He studied the putt carefully, then rolled it into the cup.

“When it was a foot from the hole,” Wall told reporters, “I knew it was in the cup.”

Wall was the first of six players to birdie the 18th and win the Masters.

1969

George Archer

George Archer figured if he hung around the lead long enough, something good might happen.

An opening 67 left him one behind Billy Casper. Two rounds later, Archer still trailed Casper by one.

But in the final round, Archer made his move and took the lead as Casper faltered. The crucial hole turned out to be the par-5 15th, where Archer saved par after finding the water on his approach. He held on to nip Casper, George Knudson and Tom Weiskopf by one stroke.

At 6-5, Archer was the tallest golfer to ever win at Augusta National.

1989

nick faldo

Nick Faldo’s 65 in the final round looked like it was going to go for naught.

It put him in a sudden-death playoff with Scott Hoch, but on the first hole all Hoch had to do was make a two-foot putt for the victory. When Hoch missed, Faldo seized the opportunity.

He rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the first of his three green jackets.

1999

Jose Maria Olazabal

When Greg Norman rolled in a 25-foot putt for eagle at No. 13 in the final round, Augusta National’s patrons roared their approval.

Jose Maria Olazabal figured the only way to diffuse the situation was to answer with a big putt of his own. Olazabal poured his 20-footer for birdie into the cup, and the two golfers exchanged gestures of appreciation.

“We were just saying to one another, ‘Those were great putts,’” Olazabal said.

Olazabal, recovering from a series of health problems that were eventually traced to his lower back, added a key birdie at the par-3 16th to help him win his second Masters.

2009

Angel Cabrera

Forty-one years after fellow Argentine Roberto De Vicenzo signed an incorrect scorecard that cost him a chance to go to an 18-hole playoff with 1968 Masters champion Bob Goalby, Angel Cabrera slipped on a green jacket.

Like his countryman before him, Cabrera endured a topsy-turvy day. Cabrera persevered to win on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff.

Cabrera closed with 1-under-par 71 to finish at 12-under 276, as did Perry (71) and Chad Campbell (69).

Campbell bowed out with a bogey on the first playoff hole. Cabrera and Perry then headed down No. 10, where Perry hit his approach left of the green. Perry couldn’t save his par, and Cabrera became the first Masters champion from South America when he two-putted for par.