Masters rookie Dennis Paulson leads after first round

Posted: Friday, April 07, 2000

First question to ask: Who in the world is Dennis Paulson? He's a 37-year-old Masters rookie who almost quit this game, one who's endured eight attempts at qualifying school, an abundance of mini-tours, the Asian Tour, the Nike Tour; every tour but the Springsteen Reunion.

He's got stories to tell. Once, while playing a tournament in New Delhi, India, during his three-year sabbatical on the Asian Tour in the early 1990s, Paulson said he drove to the course only to see a cow, a goat and an elephant occupy the street with him. Then, on a par-5 that day, he spotted a cobra and a mongoose on the same hole.

From Santa Barbara, Calif., Paulson reeks of California cool, from the buttoned-down yellow shirt with the airplane print on his back, to the self-effacing way he describes his previous golfing life, to the goatee and shaved head. With a mouth that filibusters with description of birdies and bogeys, Paulson's a stenographer's worst nightmare.

When he won his last tournament, the Huntsville Open on the then-Nike Tour, Paulson and his caddie, Andrew Pfannkuche, drove from Huntsville, Ala., to Florence, S.C. They stopped in Augusta and acted like most golf tourists do when they see Augusta National Golf Club's grounds for the first time. ``We cruised up Washington (Road) and turned right on Berckmans,'' Paulson said. ``I think that's the fifth hole, you know. That kind of stuff. We drove past Magnolia Lane, looked at it. And Drew's like, `This is what it's all about. This is where you want to be.'''

Look at Paulson now. He's leading the Masters in his first try. Which leads us to the second question: What in heaven's name is he doing leading the Masters after 18 holes, shooting a day's best 4-under par 68? Sure, Paulson may be the most obscure first-round Masters leader since Robert Wrenn in 1988, Billy Kratzert in 1986 and Jack Renner in 1983. On a day when Tommy Aaron's score bested Tiger Woods', Paulson used his powerful length -- he's a former National Long Drive Champion and his nickname on tour is ``Chief Longball'' -- to post the day's only eagle on No. 2 and added three more birdies on the par-5s.

Paulson believes being a Masters novice actually might have been to his benefit. He tried shots Thursday that veterans with more Masters tread would normally scoff at, like the wedge at No. 8 that he described as almost ``being dead twice'' when it flirted with the green's dropoff.

``Sometimes it's better playing courses with less knowledge than with a lot of knowledge because you'll do things not realizing how difficult a shot is,'' he said.

Paulson's invitation here came based on a stellar 1999 performance when he won $1.3 million without winning a tournament. Yet in 2000, Paulson has failed to record a top-15, having missed the cut at both The Players Championship and last week's BellSouth.

Third question: Will he be much of a factor the next three rounds? Only he knows. In 1990, Mike Donald opened with a 64, only to follow that with an 82. The last first-round leader to win was Ben Crenshaw in 1984.

Does Paulson feel any pressure? ``Why? It could be the Barn Door Open or the Masters,'' he said. ``The first-round leader doesn't matter. It's something I'll always be able to say I did, but unless I play well the next three days, who's going to care? You guys aren't even going to talk to me (today) if I shoot 75.''

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