Monday, 03 April 2006

A record-equalling 30 European Tour Members, including six past holders of the coveted Green Jacket and three Augusta National rookies, will tee up alongside title holder Tiger Woods in the 70th Masters Tournament this week.

Ten years on from his famous last day comeback against Greg Norman, three-time Champion Nick Faldo returns to the scene of his 1989, 1990 and 1996 triumphs along with fellow European winners Bernhard Langer (1985, 1993), Sandy Lyle (1988), José Maria Olazábal (1994, 1999), Vijay Singh (2000) and Ian Woosnam (1991).

Lack of preparation has forced two-time winner Seve Ballesteros to turn down his invitation, but despite the absence of one of Europe’s all-time greats, the continuing strength in depth of The European Tour can be gauged from the fact that the 30 Members involved in the season’s first Major equals the best total achieved in 2004.

Slipping into the precious Green Jacket remains every golfer’s dream, and in Olazábal’s case, provides powerful and lasting memories. The Spaniard, who capped his astonishing convalescence from a career-threatening illness to triumph for a second time in 1999, said: “It is a very, very special event and I feel very honoured to be able to come back here for the rest of my life. It is something to be cherished.

“For two painful years I had to face the fact that I might not walk again, never mind play golf, so when I won in 1999 it made the victory very special. All the great memories come flooding back as soon as I get close to the gates.”

Three European Tour Members make their debuts at Augusta National, namely Thongchai Jaidee – the first Thai in 35 years to play in the Masters after receiving a special invitation – and the Swedes, Carl Pettersson and Henrik Stenson.

Stenson, currently second on The European Tour Order of Merit, arrives in Augusta in top form having finished tied third behind Canada’a Stephen Ames and Retief Goosen of South Africa in The Players’ Championship at Sawgrass last week.

Also in the field is the current European Number One, David Howell, who made such as strong impression on his Masters debut last year when he finished in a share of 11th place.

Howell, paired with Woods in the third round, was outscored 65-76 by the World Number One, but stormed back on Sunday with a 69 to ensure his place in the field in 2006.

The Englishman, who went on to edge out Woods in the HSBC Champions tournament in Shanghai last November, cannot wait to reacquaint himself with the revised Augusta lay-out which has seen the course stretched from 7,290 yards to 7,445 yards.

Another Englishman, Luke Donald, returns to Augusta buoyed by his recent victory in the Honda Classic on the US PGA Tour and hoping to improve on his tied third place with Goosen last year.

Woods, who has been deeply concerned recently about the health of his father, has had an interrupted preparation for his 12th Masters Tournament. Since turning professional in 1996, he has never finished worse than tied 22nd, that in 2004, and has six top eight finishes including his four victories in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005. At the age of 30, he already holds a host of tournament records including youngest winner, largest margin of victory and lowest 72-hole tournament score.

"I know how to prepare the way I like to play the tournament in Augusta," Woods said. "It helps that I gained a lot of knowledge from members and former Champions I played practice rounds with, whether it was Jack (Nicklaus) or Arnold (Palmer) and Raymond (Floyd) or Ollie (José Maria Olazábal).

"Those guys showed me what to do and how they liked to play the holes and the course, and I soaked up a lot from them. It was definitely an eye-opening experience for me."

As well as the 30 European Tour Members in the field, the European representation is augmented by the participation of the 2005 Amateur Champion, Brian McElhinney from Ireland and Italy’s Edoardo Molinari, who captured last year’s US Amateur Championship.

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