Augusta, Ga. — When an amateur player earns an invitation to the Masters Tournament, it comes with the option of bunking in the Crow’s Nest, a dormitory-style room on the third floor of the Augusta National clubhouse. Commiserating in the Crows Nest is a special part of the experience of the Masters for those amateurs who receive invitations to play in the year’s first major. They share stories of players they have met or played a practice round with, discuss how awed they are by the size of the crowds or how they will handle the unique test of the golf course.
This year they also have shared their stories of mistaken identity.
The six amateurs in the 75th Masters are Peter Uihlein, the U.S. Amateur champion; David Chung, U.S. Amateur runner-up; Nathan Smith, the U.S. Mid-Amateur champion; U.S. Amateur Public Links champion Lion Kim, who was born in Korea and now lives in the U.S. and attends the University of Michigan; Korean-born Jin Jeong of Australia, winner of the British Amateur; and Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, the reigning Asian Amateur champion.
“It’s pretty funny some of the stories we tell at night,” said Chung, laughing at one of his experiences from earlier in the week. “I’ve been asked for autographs because people thought I was Anthony Kim and Ryo Ishikawa. Lion [Kim] has been mistaken for K.J. Choi and Y.E. Yang. And Peter Uihlein said he was mistaken for Rickie Fowler. Nobody knows how that could happen. Must be an OSU thing.”
Uihlein and Fowler were teammates at Oklahoma State University and on the 2010 USA Walker Cup Team, and on the weekend they got together to watch the Cowboys compete in Augusta State’s golf tournament at nearby Forest Hills Golf Club. They also played a practice round together Monday with Smith, another member of the victorious 2010 Walker Cup Team.
Having visited Augusta National on a couple of occasions before this week, Uihlein wasn’t awed by the test. But after that practice round Monday, he had a new appreciation for the overall challenge. “You put the people out there, and it’s a whole new world,” he said. “It kind of blows you away.”
Nowhere else do amateurs blend in better than at the Masters, which has a strong tradition of welcoming amateur players through its co-founder, Bob Jones, arguably the game’s most accomplished amateur golfer.
The primary challenge for all six players is to make the 36-hole cut, but that hasn’t been as easy since the golf course was lengthened to its current 7,435 yards and the level of competition has continually improved. Italian teenager Matteo Manassero, in 2010, was the first amateur to make the cut in five years, the longest stretch in Masters history, and no American has survived for 72 holes since 2005 (Ryan Moore and Luke List).
“The course is hard and the competition is so good. You don’t have to play perfect, but you better be doing everything pretty well,” said Smith, who missed the cut by one stroke in 2004 after he won his first of three U.S. Mid-Amateur titles.
Uihlein, 21, of Orlando, who also is exempt into the U.S. Open and British Open this year, said his first goal of the week was “just getting off the first tee.”
“I think just being here is pretty special,” said Uihlein, who claimed his U.S. Amateur title last August on his 21st birthday. “Any time you can go out in the Masters and play as an amateur, it doesn't get any better than that. That pretty much takes the cake.”
The icing is obvious.
“First and foremost have some fun, enjoy the experience and enjoy being out there with all of the patrons and everything; they are pretty special,” said Uihlein. “Making the cut would be nice and being low amateur.”
Chung, also 21, of Fayetteville, N.C., has his sights set on low amateur as well. “Of course you want to make the cut, but to be low amateur, too, what a great honor that would be,” said the Stanford University junior who also was the runner-up at the 2004 U.S. Junior Amateur. “That would mean sitting next to the winner on Sunday afternoon in Butler Cabin – something to think about for sure.”
Anthony Kim, Adam Scott and 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy have been among Chung’s practice partners. He has learned quite a bit from them, from how the winds can fool a young player to how to read the greens and handle other nuances of the layout. But dealing with the crowd … that’s another story.
“You almost feel like you can’t take a swing, there are so many people there. Just amazing,” he said. “The golf is one thing, but to hit a shot with 20,000 people around you, that’s something that takes a while to get used to. But it will be fun.”
Smith is the veteran of the bunch, having competed in 2004 and 2010. He has yet to make the cut or break par at Augusta National, with his best round a 72 on the second day in 2004 when he played the first two rounds with idol and fellow western Pennsylvanian Arnold Palmer. But the 32-year-old investment advisor from Pittsburgh hopes that having a chance to compete again so soon after his last appearance will be a boon.
“It’s definitely an advantage to have played here twice, but more important is to be back for consecutive years,” he said. “I think there’s more continuity for me in getting prepared; the course is fresh in your mind, the mistakes you made, the things you learned from last year, things you did well and how to play your way around. Plus, there are no changes from last year, whereas from my first time to last year, it was a pretty dramatic change.”
Smith’s advice to the Masters rookies is simple: play your game and just try to relax, go slow, take it all in and remember how you got an invitation.
“The first time you’re here, no matter what, you’re blinded by everything and then the week is gone just like that,” he said. “The biggest thing is that you have to feel comfortable with the course and the surroundings and all the people. You can feel like you’re on a bicycle on a freeway out there because there is so much buzz. Then just go play your game and see what happens.”