Wetterich and Co. are rookies no more

4/5/2007 - Golf

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- There are so many ways to describe how the United States Ryder Cup team fared at The K Club last September. "Unmitigated disaster" would be a good one. Same with "brutal debacle." And "out-and-out failure" seems to sum things up nicely.

Among those who shouldered the blame for the team's second straight nine-point loss to the Europeans were Phil Mickelson (who was winless), Tom Lehman (who was defenseless) and Tiger Woods (who was hopeless).

And then there were -- and utter this with disdain, my fellow Americans -- the rookies. Four inexperienced, inferior, in-over-their-heads young fellas who stole roster spots from some of the good ol' boys that have been in the Ryder Cup trenches for years.

Brett Wetterich, Zach Johnson, Vaughn Taylor and J.J. Henry were thought of as weak links for Lehman's squad right off the bat -- not necessarily for who they were, but for what they were. The pressure of such a competition is so brutal, the thinking goes, that any first-timer will be too busy shaking in his soft spikes to actually make some birdies.

As it turned out, the rooks were neither the problem nor the solution. The quartet combined for a 1-5-5 record in their matches and went home with some lovely parting gifts:

• A few hats and a brand new sweater vest.
• A free one-way plane ticket to the United States.
• A hearty handshake and note of "Thanks," from Lehman.
• The experience and confidence necessary to contend in a major championship.

Whoa. Might want to read that last one again. The experience and confidence necessary to contend in a major championship. Did that really happen?

It's true. And we have proof: Following the first round of the Masters Tournament on Thursday, each of last year's four Ryder Cup rookies found himself on the leaderboard, as Wetterich (3-under 69) is tied for the lead with Justin Rose and Johnson, Taylor and Henry (each 1-under 71) are part of a five-way share of fifth place.

"It was a great day," said Henry, echoing the sentiments of the others. "Whatever happens the rest of the way, at least I can say I was on the leaderboard at the Masters."

It's a stunning turn of events for a foursome that hasn't seen this much individual success before, let alone all at the same time. Contend for a major championship? None have finished better than T-17 before in one of the biggies. Heck, Wetterich -- that's first-round leader Mr. Wetterich, to you -- has never even made the cut in a major and is seeing Augusta National Golf Club for the first time this week.

"This is the biggest tournament, in my mind, that I want to win," he said after firing five birdies and two bogeys on Thursday. "It's the Masters and I want to win this golf tournament. To be able to go out and start off with a good, solid round, it means a lot to me."

Of course, the tournament couldn't mean more to anyone than it does for Taylor, an Augusta native, who is trying to match fellow local Larry Mize as the only hometown heroes to claim a green jacket.

Prior to the tournament, Taylor spoke about the myriad butterflies floating around his stomach when he made his initial Masters start last year, eventually missing the cut by one stroke. It was enough to make the Ryder Cup seem like an Irish festival.

"This time around it feels a little bit more normal, like a been-there, done-that type of thing," said Taylor, who made three birdies and two bogeys on Thursday. "I definitely feel more comfortable. I've come here so many years as a spectator and I think that helps, just to be comfortable with the grounds and the feeling of the golf course. It's definitely easier this time around."

Don't expect these four players to tumble from atop the leaderboard anytime soon. Even if He makes a patented run. You know, That Guy. You Know Who. Mr. Twelve Majors.

That's because prior to the Ryder Cup, Tiger Woods treated his four new teammates to dinner, joked with them, schmoozed with them, got to be buddies with them. He made them feel comfortable -- perhaps a little too comfortable.

Just two weeks ago, Wetterich found himself in the final pairing with Woods at the CA Championship at Doral. Though he didn't win the war, he did win the battle, defeating Woods by two strokes to take solo second place.

"I feel comfortable now being around him more," Wetterich said. "I was a little nervous playing with him on that Sunday. It's nice to know that you can go head-to-head playing with the best player in the world, by far."

Wetterich, Johnson, Taylor and Henry aren't rookies anymore. They've learned, they've grown, they've matured from the experience. And the rest of the Masters field -- yes, Tiger included -- had better take notice.

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com