Simpson to seal Augusta love affair with Masters debut

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

Augusta, Georgia (Reuters) - Fourteen years after playing Augusta National for the first time as a wide-eyed kid, Webb Simpson is back at the venue this week feeling the same excitement as he prepares to make his Masters debut.

When the American world number 10 sets off in Thursday's opening round, he will be competing in only his fourth major championship and he expects to feel a flutter of nerves on the first tee.

"My first major was last year, in the U.S. Open at Congressional," Simpson told reporters after playing a practice round at a sun-splashed Augusta National on Monday.

"I was very nervous and it took a few holes to calm down. But once you hit a good, solid drive or a good, solid iron shot, your nerves dwindle a little. I'm sure I'll feel it on the first hole on Thursday."

Asked what had learned from last year's U.S. Open about the pressures of competing in a major, Simpson replied: "The tough thing for me that week was I didn't really know what to expect.

"Having played in that one and the British (Open) and PGA (Championship) since then, I started to get a good feel for the amount of people ... the cameras, media and those things that are just exponentially greater than a normal Tour event.

"For me to improve, it's all about experience. It took me a while to win (on Tour). I kept getting into contention but I couldn't really get over the hump of winning. The more I can play, the more comfortable I feel."

AUGUSTA ATOMOSPHERE

Augusta National was awash with fans on Monday for the first day of official practice and Simpson said he had never experienced such a loud atmosphere before the start of a tournament.

"It's so much fun, even just practicing," said the 26-year-old, a twice champion on the PGA Tour. "I told my caddie, ‘I've never heard roars like that on a Monday morning'.

"I'm looking forward to it. It will certainly be a lot different to experience it inside the ropes."

Simpson, who capped a career-best season on the PGA Tour with two victories last year to finish second in the money list, first played at Augusta as a 12-year-old with his father, who had a friend that was a member at the exclusive club.

"My eyes were pretty wide the whole day," he recalled of the experience. "It was great. I remember the last hole. I hit driver and three-wood, and the pin is front left to where it is on Sunday. I hit it to about four feet and I missed it.

"I'm happy to be back here. It's certainly a dream to be playing in the Masters. My love affair for Augusta started when I was a young kid, and I was pinching myself this morning driving down Magnolia Lane."

(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Steve Keating; Editing by Steve Keating)