AUGUSTA, GA. – During a practice round at Augusta National on Monday, former Gopher Erik van Rooyen walked up the hill to the new tee box on the famed 13th hole, as his caddie, former Gopher Alex Gaugert, waited below.

Van Rooyen hit an impressive drive, then walked down the hill alone, and paused on the bridge that arcs over Rae's Creek to peer into the water.

He probably wasn't looking for soaked golf balls.

Van Rooyen has much to reflect upon these days. He's playing in his third Masters. He has won six times as a professional, including twice on the PGA Tour. A South African who attended college in the United States, he has played golf all over the world.

In November, he simultaneously experienced tragedy and triumph, winning the World Wide Technology Championship in Mexico with a back-nine 28 and an eagle on the 72nd hole, then cried as he conducted interviews.

His friend and former Gopher teammate Jon Trasamar was being treated for cancer at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Van Rooyen flew from Cabo to Minnesota after the tournament. Trasamar died six days after Van Rooyen's victory.

Van Rooyen finds himself, this week, blending grief and optimism.

"Look, he's on my mind every day, no doubt about that," van Rooyen said. "The biggest thing that he taught me was how precious our time is here and how privileged I am to be able to play a tournament like this.

"That was his dream as well, and obviously he wasn't able to fulfill that. That's definitely always motivation.

"And at the same time, I've just been working on the right stuff in my game. Working with Sean Foley has been fantastic, and we're just playing better golf. So I'm in a good spot."

Van Rooyen has finished in the top 10 twice this season, but has missed consecutive cuts. He'll be trying to make the cut at the Masters for the first time. He withdrew because of injury in 2020 and shot a 79 in the second round in 2022.

His scores in the three rounds he has completed at the Masters were 73, 76 and 79.

Now his primary golf allies are his old friend Alex and his new coach, Foley, who has become one of the most famous teachers on tour.

Death and birdies seem like strange companions, but they jockey for position in van Rooyen's mind.

"Yeah, obviously that was an emotional win for many reasons, right?" van Rooyen said. "Winning for the first time in a few years after feeling like my game was poor and obviously with my friend's situation and him then actually passing away a few weeks later.

"So I've played phenomenal golf since then, at least for me. It's probably the best first quarter of the year on the PGA Tour that I've had. So, yeah, the game's in really good shape."

Before his big win last season, van Rooyen played at the 3M Open at the TPC Twin Cities, and Gaugert qualified to play as well.

This week, they'll try to make Augusta National's famed fast greens and undulating hills feel as familiar as the University of Minnesota's Les Bolstad Golf Course.

"Your first Masters is obviously always a bit, `Wow,' like you've never been here before. It was sort of a pity that that was 2020 for me, but it was still amazing," van Rooyen said. "Then 2022 with all the people was absolutely spectacular. Now this time it doesn't feel as new anymore, like I'm comfortable. I know the golf course. So I'm in a bit of a different mindset, if that makes sense.

"In 2020 also, I had to withdraw because of my back, and I missed the cut in 2022. So I feel like the place owes me one."