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Zoeller made first shot at Masters count

4/3/2009 - Golf Fuzzy Zoeller
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Masters Moments: 1979

The Rookie Wins It

Fuzzy Zoeller puts little stock in the idea that a first-time participant cannot win the Masters Tournament. After all, he did it.

His Masters victory was 30 years ago, but it hasn't happened since and occurred only twice prior. At the first two Masters, in 1934 and 1935, Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen won in their first attempts. Of course, almost everybody was seeing the course for the first time then.

Which leads to the logical conclusion that experience is necessary to win the year's first major championship, an assumption that Zoeller knew all about when he drove down Magnolia Lane for the first time in 1979.

"I don't listen to all that stuff," Zoeller said during a recent interview. "Everybody saying you can't do this, you can't do that. I don't know why. Guess if you listen to it, you can convince yourself of it. Sure, I heard all that crap. And it's the same crap that they say every year and they continue to say. But there have been a lot of talented people through there.

"My own opinion is, these kids coming in make a mistake in not using an Augusta [National] caddie. There's a lot of local knowledge to Augusta. I've talked to a lot of [experienced] guys, and they say they use a local caddie when they are in practicing. But it's not the same thing as having him on the bag. I think it would be maybe a 2- or 3-shot plus for them if they would use a local caddie for one year, just to learn the golf course. That's just one man's opinion."

Next week, Zoeller, 57, will play the Masters one last time. He says he'll be done afterward. Instead of using an experienced caddie, his daughter, Gretchen, a former college golfer, will be on the bag for him.

When he first showed up at Augusta, Zoeller was assigned Jariah Beard, who went on to traverse the grounds for 25 years. Beard had started caddying at Augusta in the late 1950s, and Zoeller gives him much of the credit for his 1979 victory, which came in the tournament's first sudden-death playoff, over Ed Sneed and Tom Watson.

"My caddie did a marvelous job," Zoeller said. "We just teamed up well that week."

A few months earlier, Zoeller had notched his first PGA Tour title with a victory in San Diego to earn a Masters invitation.

"I knew exactly what it meant," Zoeller said. "I was very happy, and then the next goal was to finish high enough to get in the next year."

At the time, an invitation back to the Masters required a top-24 finish (now it's a top-16), and Zoeller had that wrapped up as he played the 18th hole with Watson.

"I was just happy being there," Zoeller said. "I had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, which was getting in next year. That was my excitement. Having a chance to win? That was the furthest thing from my mind, although I was playing very well."

Playing in the second-to-last group, Zoeller was in the scoring trailer with Watson and was pleased to know he was coming back.

"That's really all I was thinking about," Zoeller said. "Then Ed had his disaster, which just goes to show you how rude this game is at times."

Sneed, who had led by 5 strokes heading into the final round, had what appeared to be a comfortable lead with three holes to play, but he bogeyed the 16th, 17th and 18th holes -- missing a 6-footer for par at the last after three-putting at the 16th and 17th.

Zoeller had birdied the 17th and saved par with a 7-footer at the 18th.

That meant the tournament's first sudden-death playoff (an 18-hole playoff previously had been in effect), which started at the 10th hole. Zoeller won when he knocked his 8-iron approach at the par-4 11th to 8 feet and made the birdie putt.

Instead of merely getting into the 1980 tournament, Zoeller had a Masters invitation for life. The Augusta victory was a launching pad of sorts, with Zoeller going on to win 10 PGA titles, including a U.S. Open title in 1984. But he never seriously contended at the Masters again, his only top-10 coming in 1982.

Still, he came back to the Masters year after year, whistling and cracking wise along the way. It was that sense of humor, however, that got him into trouble in 1997 when Tiger Woods was on his way to his first Masters title.

Zoeller made an offhand remark when asked about Woods' performance. "He's doing quite well, pretty impressive," Zoeller said. "That little boy is driving well, and he's putting well. He's doing everything it takes to win. So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say 'Congratulations and enjoy it,' and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it?" Zoeller then smiled, snapped his fingers and walked away before turning and adding, "Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve."

The comments were said to a small group of media but went unreported for a week until CNN ran the interview. A firestorm ensued, as Zoeller was branded a racist by some and lost endorsement deals. He offered an apology to Woods, and Zoeller maintains the situation was "a joke that went bad."

Conjecture continues as to whether Zoeller ever recovered from the fallout, but he remains a sponsor, pro-am and fan favorite, and he's still quick with a quip.

And he doesn't mind poking fun at himself, explaining exactly his reasons for stepping away after this year's Masters.

While eating breakfast at the club last year, Arnold Palmer, who was about to head to the first tee to hit the ceremonial opening shot, made a crack to Zoeller: "What are you doing here?"

"I turned around to him and said, 'You're exactly right. What am I trying to prove out here?' It's time."

And with that, Zoeller decided to make the 30th anniversary of his victory his last Masters Tournament. He'll return for the Champions Dinner, maybe play in the Par 3 Contest.

He does not plan to get sentimental, but he does not downplay the significance of winning the tournament.

"There is something magical about that green coat," Zoeller said. "I mean that sincerely. It's a very special week, and being able to wear that green jacket … it's made my whole career. It's special."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.