It was an historic day at Augusta National as former French Open champion, Rafael Nadal, became the first Grand Slam winner ever to tee it up at the Masters. After calling it a career two years ago due to a rare foot injury, the tennis phenom dedicated himself to the fairways full-time and has worked his way into legitimate contender status. With a first-round score of 69, Nadal sits in third-place, one stroke behind co-leaders Lee Westwood and Tiger Woods. What was seen as a pipedream – successfully transitioning from clay courts to sand shots – has become reality. Rafa has got game.
Just before his 1:24 tee time, Nadal did his now trademark sprint from the practice green to the 1st tee just in time to hear his introduction. Many spectators surrounding the tee box were confused by Nadal’s frenzied approach. The puzzled looks only intensified as Nadal hopped around like a boxer waiting for the opening bell. Without any appearance of anxiety, Nadal then put his peg in the ground, set his stance, feverishly adjusted the backside of pants for an uncomfortable period of time, and launched a soaring drive that split the fairway.
“Vamos,” he yelled to his caddy, and uncle, Toni, as the ball sailed more than 300 yards. He accompanied the shout with a celebratory left uppercut; one of several that followed good shots throughout day. Fans began feeding off Nadal’s enthusiasm and started echoing his fist-pumps with calls of, “You the hombre, Rafa!” The impressive showing didn’t go unnoticed in the clubhouse.
“I was on the course, so I didn’t get to see his round,” said Woods. “But it’s a solid opening score. From what I’ve seen from Rafa this year he seems to have an uncanny ability to salvage a hole. He’ll put a drive deep in the trees, follow it with an approach over the green, yet still come away with par. He’s an escape artist.” Woods was rather brief in his comments, excusing himself from the interview room after receiving a barrage of text messages.
Nadal was told of Woods’ compliments and was asked if he’d look forward to an opportunity to be in the final pairing on Sunday with the four-time champion. “Well, for sure. But I can’t possibly beat him,” said the humble Nadal. “He is the greatest of all-time, no? It is just an honor to be on the same course as him.” When it was pointed out to Nadal that he said the same thing about former rival, Roger Federer, before beating him in Paris Nadal’s eyes widened. “Yes, but I was lucky that day. I’m sure if we ended up playing each other again in Paris he would have certainly beaten me. Many times.”
Still, not everybody has been enamored with Nadal. The guy is quirky. He insists that for each shot Uncle Toni must stand exactly six steps to Nadal’s right and four steps behind him. He also needs four tees – two plastic white, and two wooden yellow – to be in his left pocket at all times. His uncle carries a bag of replacements if any of the four are lost or broken. When he takes a drink of water, the bottle has to replaced in the side pocket of his bag so the label is always facing out. Nadal also changes shirts every six holes. These tics, while mostly harmless, can slow a Rafa round down to the pace of a Saturday afternoon at the local muni course. Some have even dubbed him, “The Human Rain Delay.” No habit draws more ire than Nadal’s propensity for the towel.
“It was 60-degrees with a stiff wind,” said first-round playing partner Phil Mickelson. “I mean look at me – I’ve got man boobs and I hardly broke a sweat today. But he’s reaching for a towel after every shot as though we’re playing Doral in the middle of July.” Mickelson was visibly perturbed on the 14th green when, waiting to attempt a birdie putt, Nadal came up two feet short on his own 20-foot birdie attempt, yet still toweled off extensively before making the tap-in.
But while pushing the rules, Nadal is not breaking them. And given his success, and the longer career for a golfer, there’s the possibility that other tennis players will be tempted to make a similar transition. Rumors have surfaced that, rather than continually battle severe breathing problems, Novak Djokovic is considering trading in his Wilson for a set of Pings.
“Really?” asked Nadal when told of former rival’s potential move. “He should really stick to tennis. I think once he gets his act together he has at least one really special year in him. But after that it’s going to be tough to compete with the likes of Gasquet, Monfils, and Murray. Those guys are going to be awfully good.”