Friday, 19 March 2010

The azaleas are in full bloom, the Green Jacket is pressed and ready and everyone in the world of golf has Georgia on their minds; it can mean only one thing, the first Major Championship of the 2007 season – the Masters Tournament at Augusta National – is upon us.

Six debutants are amongst The European Tour contingent who will walk up Magnolia Drive hoping to have the famous jacket slipped onto their shoulders by defending Champion Phil Mickelson in the Butler Cabin on Sunday night.

To do that, the winner will have to conquer an Augusta National whose original Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie layout has undergone considerable changes under the gaze of course architect Tom Fazio in recent years.

It was lengthened to 7445 yards (6807 metres) in 2006 and will play to that again this year, once more offering no short cuts to success as it provides unique challenges across all aspects of the game; driving, iron play, short game and, especially, putting.

There may well be a debate about the identity of the 2007 Champion but there has never been any debate about the skill required to succeed on Augusta National’s greens. As ever, they will be undulating, fast and firm; demanding precision in both pace and direction.

Following on from Europe’s success in last year’s Ryder Cup at The K Club and Henrik Stenson’s victory in the World Golf Championships – Accenture Match Play in February, there is genuine hope that a European golfer can unlock the intricacies of the putting surfaces and succeed in the Masters Tournament for the first time since José Maria Olazábal won the second of his two Green Jackets in 1999.

The Swede is, understandably, quoted as one who could bring success as are the English duo of Luke Donald, who finished in a tie for third place on his debut in 2005, and Paul Casey, who notched a share of sixth place on his first appearance a year earlier.

The 2006 European Tour Golfer of the Year missed out on a trip to Augusta National 12 months ago but his resurgent form since then – with subsequent victories in the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles, the HSBC World Match Play Championship and the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship – have moved Casey into the World’s Top 15. It is understandable then, that the 29 year old cannot wait to return.

“I think the Masters suits my game best. At Augusta National you need to work the golf ball both ways but a high soft flight is what you need with the irons and I’ve got that,” he said. “You also need a good short game which is why I think this gives me the best opportunity to win a Major and, hopefully, I can get close to that this year.”

As always, the two players Casey and the rest of The European Tour contingent will be looking out for are World Number One Tiger Woods and World Number Three Mickelson, an understandable reaction considering that, between them, the duo have taken possession of five of the last six Green Jackets.

This will be defending Champion Mickelson’s 15th appearance at Augusta National and the 36 year old American admitted it was no coincidence that his first victory did not come until his 12th year of teeing up.

“It did take me a lot longer than I thought would to get comfortable here,” said the left-hander. “I remember showing up in my first year in 1991 and thinking, ‘I can play this golf course, no problem.’ I opened with a 69 and was excited but it took me eight more rounds before I shot in the 60s again.”

Six European Tour Members – Bradley Dredge, Johan Edfors, Kenneth Ferrie, Robert Karlsson, Jeev Milkha Singh and YE Yang – will begin that voyage of discovery this year and Welshman Dredge summed up the feelings of all the debutants in the field this year.

“Back in 1992 I lost in the final of the British Amateur Championship and I remember sitting watching the Masters on television the following year and being absolutely gutted that I wasn’t there,” he said. “All of which makes it doubly sweet that I have finally been able to get there through my world ranking.

“Having watched it for so many years on the television it definitely has a mystique about it for all the players and it is very exciting to be at Augusta National, see it first hand, play it, and compete in the Masters for the first time. It’s fantastic.”

Australian Adam Scott goes into Thursday’s first round in buoyant mood, having won for the fifth time on the US PGA Tour at the Shell Houston Open last weekend. Scott, who cut his teeth on The European Tour – where he has also won five times – joins the growing group of players keen to infiltrate the Woods-Mickelson axis at Augusta National.

The Masters continues to hold wonderful memories for European players, as witnessed in two victories by Seve Ballesteros. Bernhard Langer and Olazábal; three successes by Nick Faldo and single wins by Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam. Sunday night will determine whether another European can join that illustrious sextet and receive lifetime admission to that ultimate inner sanctum at Augusta – the Champion’s locker room.

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