The continuing strength and influence of The European Tour on a global stage is further emphasised this week when a record number of Members take up their invitations to compete in the 68th Masters Tournament – the first Major Championship of 2004.
Initially there were 31 European Tour Members in the starting line-up but that was reduced with the withdrawal, through injury, of two time Champion Severiano Ballesteros. But the 30 who will tee up amongst the azaleas still represents five more than the previous record best of 25 who participated in 2002.
Included in the 30 names are six men who know what it takes to win the Green Jacket - Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, José Maria Olazábal, Vijay Singh and Ian Woosnam, all part of the glorious spell since 1980 which has seen 12 victories for European Tour Members (see page two) - and five other Major Champions; Ben Curtis, John Daly, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Paul Lawrie.
Also in the European Tour contingent are seven debutants who will savour the special atmosphere of the trip down Magnolia Drive and the layout of Augusta National for the first time; namely Paul Casey, Ben Curtis, Brian Davis, Fredrik Jacobson, Ian Poulter, Phillip Price and Lian-Wei Zhang.
From that group, history will be made when Zhang, winner of the Caltex Masters, presented by Carlsberg, Singapore 2003, becomes the first Chinese golfer to play in the Masters Tournament and in a Major Championship after having received an invitation to compete.
The last of the seven to take his place was England’s Brian Davis, whose victory in the ANZ Championship on The European Tour in February, coupled with his top five finishes in both the Dubai Desert Classic and the Qatar Masters saw him move into the Top 50 on the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time.
Aside from Davis, there are four Members competing who have tasted success already on The 2004 European Tour International Schedule in the starting line-up, Padraig Harrington (Omega Hong Kong Open), Trevor Immelman (South African Airways Open), Colin Montgomerie (Caltex Masters, presented by Carlsberg, Singapore 2004), and Ernie Els (Heineken Classic), while John Daly, Adam Scott, Vijay Singh and Els have won this year on the US PGA Tour, Scott the most recent champion having pipped Harrington to The Players Championship title after an enthralling battle at the TPC at Sawgrass two weeks ago.
Both Harrington and Scott have impressive records at Augusta National, the Irishman finishing in the top 30 in three of his four appearances to date while the Australian’s first two appearances, in 2002 and 2003, have yielded two top 25 finishes.
If the duo can reproduce the stunning form they exhibited in the closing stages of The Players Championship then they could be involved in the race for the Green Jacket, Harrington carding a final round 66, which included an inward half of 30 for an 11 under par total of 277, while Scott held his nerve magnificently over the closing stages, bravely pitching and putting at the 18th for a 70 and victory by a shot on 276.
Harrington, of course, continued to emphasise his excellent current form with a fourth place finish in last week’s BellSouth Classic.
The European contingent at Augusta will be further bolstered by English amateur Gary Wolstenholme, who won The Amateur Championship at Royal Troon in 2003.
It will be the second visit to Augusta for the 43 year old, who played in the 1992 tournament, following his victory in the 1991 Amateur Championship at Ganton.