Friday, 19 March 2010

Half a century ago, the venerated golf writer Herbert Warren Wind coined the phrase that has helped establish the mystique and aura which makes Augusta National a unique place in world golf.

‘Amen Corner’ is now the universally accepted term for the 11th, 12th and 13th, and it would be no surprise if those three holes - a brutal par four, a tortuous par three and a mentally demanding par five – once again hold the key to the 72nd Masters Tournament.

Zach Johnson of the United States defends the title he won with a one over par total of 289 at chilly and fast-running Augusta last year. But no matter the weather, the colourful sight of the azaleas in full bloom and a plethora of Green Jackets bustling around the one-time fruit nursery in Georgia denote the start of the Major Championship season.

The 50th anniversary of Amen Corner is only one notable milestone which makes the 2008 Masters even more alluring than usual.

The remarkable Gary Player, who made his Masters debut in 1957, the year before Warren Wind reached his ‘eureka’ moment, will break Arnold Palmer’s record of most Masters appearances when he competes for the 51st time at the age of 72.

American Fred Couples, the 1992 Champion, would deprive Player of another record if he makes the halfway cut for the 24th time – one more than the irrepressible South African.

But the most striking statistic among a welter of outstanding achievements is the one which has the most poignant resonance for The European Tour. Hard to believe, but it is exactly 20 years since Scotland’s Sandy Lyle delivered the ultimate coup de grâce – that stupendous seven iron from the fairway bunker at the 72nd hole which brought Lyle, and British golf, a first Masters title.

Lyle, who turned 50 in February, will forever be associated with that ‘master’ stroke and, two decades on, his own special anniversary is marked by the fact that this is also his 450th start on The European Tour.

Of course, before Lyle’s memorable victory, Spain’s Seve Ballesteros (1980 and 1983) and Bernhard Langer of Germany (1985) had broken the mould for European golf, a winning tradition for the continent which was carried on by England’s Nick Faldo (1989, 1990 and 1996), Ian Woosnam of Wales (1991), Langer again in 1993, and Spain’s José Maria Olazábal (1994 and 1999).

It is now nine years since Europe last tasted victory thanks to Olazábal and eight since a European Tour Member – in the guise of Fiji’s Vijay Singh – slipped the Green Jacket over his shoulders. It remains to be seen whether Angel Cabrera and Padraig Harrington, the reigning US Open and Open Champions respectively, can provide the inspiration for their fellow Tour Members to be measured for that famous item of clothing this week.

Justin Rose of England, who finished tied for fifth last year and is one of a record number of 36 European Tour Members who will tee up, has hinted that his time is not far away. Compatriots Paul Casey and Luke Donald have indicated their liking for the course while Sweden’s Henrik Stenson and Lee Westwood of England go to Augusta in fine fettle as the current Number One and Two on The European Tour Order of Merit.

Major winners Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Cabrera and Singh will all confident of slipping into the Green Jacket, while the man on whom all eyes will focus is a certain Tiger Woods, four times a Masters Champion, and renewing his quest to overhaul Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 Majors.

Woods currently has 13 Majors to his name and he starts as the undisputed favourite to claim his fifth Green Jacket, just one behind Nicklaus, who won his 18th and final Major on the hallowed turf of Augusta National at the age of 46.

Although his glorious winning streak came to an end at the recent WGC-CA Championship, Woods has never finished worse than 22nd at Augusta since winning by a 12 shot margin on his professional debut in 1997.

A total of nine European Tour Members will make their debuts this week, including Danes Anders and Søren Hansen, who have a happy knack of achieving their golfing feats in tandem. Also teeing up for the first time are Sweden’s Daniel Chopra, England’s Nick Dougherty, Australian Richard Green, Germany’s Martin Kaymer, Andres Romero of Argentina, South African Richard Sterne and China’s Liang Wen-chong.

But whoever becomes the Master of Augusta on Sunday, the 2008 Masters will always have a special resonance for Lyle.

"It seems like 20 months to me, not 20 years,” said Lyle."It's amazing. Not a day goes by playing on the golf course where an amateur or professional doesn't talk about the bunker shot. I've got a lot of mileage out of that. I can be on the other side of the world in China and say hello to somebody, and they know who I am and what happened!

"Many players would love to tee it up in the Masters every year, and I have the privilege of doing that. I love that I can still play at the age of 50.”

Amen to that, Sandy.

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