A record 18 European Tour Members have been invited to play in the 63rd Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia this week.
First time invitations have been issued to two of the Tour’s leading lights over the past couple of seasons - Denmark’s Thomas Björn and Sweden’s Patrik Sjöland.
Nick Faldo, the all-time Augusta National money winner and a three-time Masters champion, admitted he has never grown tired of the stunning, colourful vision he first saw as a teenager on television. Now Björn and Sjöland will discover for themselves what makes Augusta so enthralling and special.
After winning his third Green Jacket in 1996, following one of the most dramatic final days in Masters history when he caught and overhauled Greg Norman, Faldo commented: "What strikes you each time you go to Augusta is the sheer beauty of the place."
Those spell-binding TV pictures of Jack Nicklaus capturing the fourth of his six Green Jackets provided Faldo with the inspiration to become one of the greatest British golfers of this Millennium.
Now, more than a quarter of a century on, Augusta will weave its unique form of magic on Björn and Sjöland, who earned invitations with their outstanding performances in 1998 and 1999.
Sjöland received an invite just weeks after winning many new friends in the United States following his superb victories in the Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship at La Costa.
The famous Green Jacket has been won by Europeans no fewer than ten times over the last 19 years, since 23-year-old Severiano Ballesteros claimed the breakthrough victory for Europe in 1980.
He remained the youngest winner at Augusta until 1997, when Tiger Woods shattered several records. At 21 years, three months and 15 days, he not only eclipsed Ballesteros’s record of being the youngest champion, but also claimed the biggest winning margin (12 strokes) and the tournament record (18 under par).
Twelve months later, Woods’s close friend and confidant, Mark O’Meara, won a major title at the 59th attempt by birdieing the last two holes to squeeze out Fred Couples and David Duval.
As ever, Augusta National’s last nine holes provided an afternoon of thrills, spills and exhilarating theatre, in which European golfers played a prominent role.
Darren Clarke, on his Masters debut, enjoyed a magnificent week, finishing in a tie for eighth place alongside Europe’s No.1, Colin Montgomerie. Clarke shot 67 and 69 over the weekend and Montgomerie 69 and 70 to finish six strokes behind O’Meara, who, of course, then proceeded to double his major tally in July by landing the Open Championship.
Clarke Irishman cannot wait to return to the lush greenery of the one-time fruit farm which was transformed by the great Bobby Jones and Dr Alister Mackenzie.
He said: "The US Open and US PGA are not really played on my type of courses, one on which I might excel. Nothing about Augusta frightens me. I like the course. It suits me - or at least it did last year!
"I couldn’t wait to go out and play it. I walked out on to the putting green and looked around. It was an awesome place. I was close to the lead with five holes to play and made some silly mistakes. Hopefully if I get in the same position again I won’t make the same mistakes."
Augusta is rich in European memories, through the brilliance of Ballesteros, Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, José Maria Olazábal and Ian Woosnam. Ten titles garnered over sixteen years between 1980 and 1996. Who can now rekindle those magical moments?
Sweden’s Per-Ulrik Johansson, 12th in 1998, returns along with compatriots Gabriel Hjertstedt and Jesper Parnevik in addition to South Africa’s Ernie Els, an Honorary Life Member of the European Tour, Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez, and England’s Lee Westwood.
Westwood hinted that he is running into form by finishing tied sixth in the TPC at Sawgrass two weeks ago. Hjertstedt, 27, has rejoined the European Tour since capturing his second title in America, the Touchstone Energy Tucson Open, in February.
Since last year, the course has been extended by 60 yards, taking the revised length of the par-72 layout to 6,985 yards.
The tee has been moved back at the par five second and the fairway bunker shifted to the right. The re-measured hole stretches to 575 yards from 555 yards.
Alterations at the 11th have been made to enhance flood control. The green has been raised two feet and the green-side pond by a foot. Two bunkers have been removed and a new one placed right centre.
Fairway mounds to the right of the 15th fairway have been reduced by more than 80 per cent and 20 pine trees planted. The mound to the right of the green has been removed and six pine trees planted.
The 17th has been stretched from 400 yards to 425 yards by moving the tee back. A cluster of pine trees have been planted to the golfer’s right.
In addition, the second cut of rough has been allowed to grow from 5/8in to 13/8in.