A record 25 European Tour Members will tee up at Augusta National Golf Club this week for the 66th playing of the Masters Tournament, led by 2001 Volvo Order of Merit winner and reigning US Open Champion, Retief Goosen.
The newly crowned BellSouth Classic winner, who captured his eighth title on The European Tour International Schedule when he won the Johnnie Walker Classic in emphatic style at Lake Karrinyup Country Club in January, will be making his fourth appearance at Augusta National for the first Major Championship of 2002.
Goosen is one of a dozen European Tour Members in the field to have already earned Major Championship honours, seven of whom have won 12 Green Jackets in the past 22 years.
Among them is José Maria Olazábal, Champion in 1994 and 1999, who will make his way up Magnolia Drive in search of a third Green Jacket brimming with confidence after an outstanding start to his season on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Spaniard, second only to Tiger Woods in the all-time money winners at the Masters Tournament, is currently second in both the Volvo Order of Merit and the US PGA Tour Money List having won the Omega Hong Kong Open on The 2002 European Tour International Schedule and the Buick Invitational in the US.
Olazábal started the 2002 season with a second place in the BMW Asian Open before winning the following week in Hong Kong. In his eight starts on the US PGA Tour this year has finished outside the top ten only twice. He finished third behind Vijay Singh in the Shell Houston Open and arrives at Augusta National in peak form.
In 1999 Olazábal became the 14th multiple winner of the Masters Tournament at the end of an emotionally charged week. Three years earlier he watched from his sick bed as Nick Faldo overhauled Greg Norman, wondering if he would ever compete at the highest level again. But in the spring of 1999 Olazábal proved he is still among the best players in the world with a two shot victory over Davis Love III.
The following year Singh won his first Green Jacket when he finished three shots ahead of Ernie Els to capture his second Major Championship title with a ten under par total of 278. Singh, an Honorary Member of The European Tour, has since won twice on The European Tour International Schedule, claiming back-to-back titles in Malaysia and Singapore last year, and recorded his tenth title on the US PGA Tour with victory in Houston.
Seve Ballesteros began The European Tour roll of honour with victories in 1980 and 1983. Since then, European Tour Members have enjoyed phenomenal success among the azaleas and dogwoods with victories by Nick Faldo (1989, 90, 96) Bernhard Langer (1985, 93), Sandy Lyle (1988), Olazábal (1994, 99), Singh (2000) and Ian Woosnam (1991).
Other Major Championship winners invited to play in the 2002 Masters are American John Daly, winner of the Open Championship and the US PGA Championship, Els, twice a US Open Champion and the current leader of the Volvo Order of Merit having won the Heineken Classic and Dubai Desert Classic this season in addition to the Genuity Championship on the US PGA Tour, and past Open Champions Paul Lawrie and Greg Norman.
The prominence of European Tour Members on a global scale is once again reflected in the fact that they will make up a quarter of the field, continuing the steady growth in invitees over the past 20 years.
Among the players making their debuts will be Ryder Cup players Niclas Fasth, runner-up in the 2001 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes, and Paul McGinley of Ireland, winner of the Celtic Manor Resort Wales Open last season. Australian Adam Scott, winner of the Qatar Masters last month, will also be making his first appearance at Augusta National.
More experienced campaigners include Darren Clarke, whose game is peaking at the right time following his runner-up finish to Singh in the Shell Houston Open, Sergio Garcia, who won the Mercedes Championships in America at the start of the season, seven time Volvo Order of Merit winner Colin Montgomerie and the man who ended Montgomerie's reign as European Tour Number One, Lee Westwood, who missed last year's Masters Tournament due to the birth of his son.
Much of the focus will, of course, be centred on Tiger Woods, the defending Champion following his historic victory last year when he became the first player to hold all four Major Championships simultaneously.
Augusta National has undergone major surgery for the 2002 Masters Tournament with nine holes altered during the winter and the course lengthened to 7,270 yards from 6,985 yards.
The changes have been welcomed by players who have had the opportunity of a practice round. Woods, who will be seeking his third green jacket in six years, said: "You'll have guys missing more greens because they are hitting longer shots in. It's going to be quite a challenge - a fun challenge - that's for sure."
Els, joint sixth with Langer last year, said: "If I'm swinging well I will have a good time round there. I really like the changes they have made. It's a lot more difficult. I think it will suit a lot of players."
Singh also gave his approval. "Very nice, very tough, very long, and it's going to be a really good test of golf when we get out there," he said. "You've got to think of all your tee shots more than ever now.”
It used to be just tee it up and hit it as far as you can, now it's a premium to your tee shots, you've got to hit the fairways. It favours the guys who are going to putt well and obviously hit it straight and long."