The enduring strength in depth of The European Tour will be emphasised once again this week at Augusta National Golf Club when 24 European Tour Members make the nerve-tingling journey up Magnolia Drive to contest the 2003 Masters Tournament.
Twelve months ago, the best finish by European Tour Members in the first Major Championship of the year was posted by European Number One Retief Goosen who took second place behind Tiger Woods, and hopes are high that one of this year’s contingent can go on to claim the coveted Green Jacket come Sunday night. Expectations are understandably buoyant as European Tour success in Georgia has been a common occurrence since Seve Ballesteros's ground-breaking victory in 1980.
Since then, six players - Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, José Maria Olazábal, Vijay Singh and Ian Woosnam - have joined the Spaniard on the Roll of Honour, Olazábal and Singh the last two European Tour Champions in 1999 and 2000 respectively.
Last year, of the 25 players who teed up on Thursday morning, 18 made the 36 hole cut, from where 14 went on to finish in the top 20, the best ever performance by European Tour Members in a Major Championship in the United States.
In the field this year are six of the members of the victorious European Ryder Cup Team who beat the Americans 15 ½ - 12 ½ at The De Vere Belfry last September, Darren Clarke, Niclas Fasth, Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington, Langer and Colin Montgomerie.
Of the six the man in a rich vein of form is Harrington, who has already won on The 2003 European Tour International Schedule, lies fourth on the Volvo Order of Merit, and who finished joint second to Davis Love III in The Players Championship at Sawgrass two weeks ago.
In his three visits to the Masters Tournament, the 31 year old Dubliner has never finished outside the top 30 and last year, his tie for fifth place with Ernie Els proved he is rapidly coming to terms with the special demands that the undulating fairways and greens of Augusta National place on the game.
Els, of course, will be in action too, having recovered from a hand injury which initiated his withdrawal from The Players Championship. The 33 year old South African will be searching for his fourth Major title, to go with his US Open Championship successes of 1994 and 1997 and his memorable Open Golf Championship win at Muirfield last summer, which helped him be named Asprey Golfer of the Year.
Els is the current Volvo Order of Merit leader thanks to his phenomenal start to the 2003 season which saw him win both the Heineken Classic and the Johnnie Walker Classic as well as finish second in both the Caltex Masters, presented by Carlsberg, Singapore 2003 and the Dubai Desert Classic.
Hard on his heels in the race to win the Harry Vardon Trophy are second placed Peter Lonard and another Australian, Adam Scott, and both will be in Augusta too. Scott finished in a highly creditable tie for ninth place on his debut last year while this year it will be the turn of Lonard to experience the unique Augusta atmosphere for the first time.
The 35 year old Australian has also been in sparkling form this year, finishing tied second behind Els in the Heineken Classic, tied fourth in the ANZ Championship and fourth in the World Golf Championships - Accenture Match Play in California at the beginning of March.
Lonard is one of four European Tour Members making their debuts this year, the others being South Africa's Tim Clark, France's Thomas Levet and England's Justin Rose.
However, once again, the main focus of attention during the week is likely to centre around Tiger Woods as the World Number One has his sights set on achieving something that has never before been done in golf, namely a third straight victory in the Masters Tournament.
It is well documented that Augusta National Golf Club brings out the best in Woods who already has won three times in six attempts as a profesisonal and in 25 of his 30 rounds he has matched or bettered par.
Only three men have won the coveted Green Jacket back-to-back. Jack Nicklaus was the first to do it in 1965 and 1966. Faldo equalled the feat with his successive victories in 1989 and 1990, before Woods' victories in 2001 and 2002.
Augusta National underwent significant changes before the 2002 Masters Tournament. However, the true nature of the renovations were overshadowed by hard and persistent rains during tournament week which prevented the players from experiencing the course as it was meant to be played when Tom Fazio redesigned and lengthened several holes. Weather permitting, this year will mark the first test of those changes, plus another at the reconfigured fifth hole, which is the only revision to the course for 2003. There, the tee has been moved back and over to create a dogleg effect, and the fairway bunkers have been moved closer to the green. The carry over the bunkers now is over 300 yards with the total length of the hole, 455 yards.