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Opportunity to be part of game is seen as gift

BEHIND THE SCENES

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

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Bill Haas is among the young pros playing in this week's Masters Tournament who wish they had had the experience of playing in it as an amateur.

Rickie Fowler, the 2010 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, did not play in the Masters as an amateur but says he wishes he had. (Zach Boyden-Holmes/Staff)

"I think I missed out," said Haas, a former Wake Forest star playing in his second consecutive Masters. "I would have loved to have done it, but I didn't."

Rickie Fowler, who left Oklahoma State after his junior year, didn't play at Augusta National Golf Club as an amateur, either. Neither did former college stars and Masters veterans Stewart Cink (Georgia Tech), Lucas Glover (Clemson) and David Toms (Louisiana State University).

"It would have been nice," said Fowler, who is making his Masters debut this week.

Matt Kuchar, the leading money winner on the PGA Tour last year, could tell Haas and Fowler exactly what they missed. He played as an amateur in 1998 and 1999 when he was a Georgia Tech star.

Georgia Tech is also where Augusta National and Masters co-founder Bobby Jones, a lifelong amateur, went to college.

"When you're an amateur there, you really feel special," Kuchar said of the Masters. "You get sponsor exemptions as an amateur (to PGA Tour events), but you don't feel like you're all that meant to be there. At Augusta, they really make you feel you are meant to be there."

Kuchar soaked up the experience by staying in the Crow's Nest, the dormitorylike housing on the second floor of the clubhouse that is reserved for amateurs. On Monday night, there was the amateur dinner to attend.

"There is a mystique about staying in the Crow's Nest and going to the amateur dinner," Kuchar said. "At the amateur dinner, they make you feel like you've got a chance to win. They tell you it hasn't been done but that you're good enough. The tournament was founded on that principle, including amateurs. They would all love to see an amateur do well there."

Masters veteran Tim Clark took it all in when he played as an amateur in the 1998 Masters. He says it was the highlight of his golf career, which includes last year's Players Championship victory.

Ben Crenshaw, who is playing in his 40th Masters, played as an amateur in 1972 and 1973.

"These are different times and I can't answer for them (the current pros who didn't play as amateurs), but I can just tell this: My two amateur years were incredible because I got to stay on the grounds," Crenshaw said.

He stayed in the Crow's Nest his first year, along with most of the other amateurs that year.

"I think we had eight," Crenshaw remembered. "We amateurs were a team. I had just started traveling to some national amateur tournaments. We just couldn't believe we were here in the first place.

"The second year, I stayed on top of the old tournament headquarters over by the golf shop with Vinny Giles," Crenshaw said. "We ate every meal here at the club. It was special. I loved it."

Haas has strong family ties in the Masters, which would have made playing in it as an amateur that much more special.

His great-uncle Bob Goalby won the 1968 green jacket. Haas' father, Jay, played in 22 Masters, through 2005; his uncle Dillard Pruitt played in the Masters in 1992 and 1993; and his uncle Jerry Haas played in 1985.

Bill Haas' best shot to make the field as an amateur came in the 2002 U.S. Amateur, where he lost to eventual winner Ricky Barnes 1-up in the semifinals. The U.S. Amateur winner and runner-up earn one-year invitations to the Masters. Had Haas made it to the final that year, he would have been in the 2003 Masters field with his father.

In addition to the U.S. Amateur spots, the other four amateur invitations each year go to the British Amateur champion, the U.S. Mid-Amateur Champion, the U.S. Public Links winner and the Asian Amateur winner.

Fowler said that the closest he came to a Masters invitation as an amateur was "making it to the quarterfinals in the U.S. Amateur and within a couple of shots in the (Public Links Championship)."

"It's something not many people get to do," Haas said of playing as an amateur in the Masters. "I think it's something you could tell people. People don't even ask how you did. If you played there as an amateur, you did something pretty cool."

"I've had some buddies in the last couple of years stay in the Crow's Nest, like Nathan Smith," Fowler said. "I've heard a lot of good stories."

After missing out as an amateur, Haas said one of his goals as a pro was to qualify for the Masters, which he did in 2010, and tied for 26th place.

"I've done that, and now I want to keep going back," he said. "I think that's why last year was so special.

Reach David Westin at (706) 823-3224 or david.westin@augustachronicle.com.

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