For any golfer, playing in the Masters Tournament for the first time is a moment to remember, but for Gonzalo Fernandez-Castaño the drive down Magnolia Lane this week has felt particularly poignant.
Twelve months ago the popular Spaniard was in the golfing doldrums, with his career on hold due to a career-threatening back injury that meant he was forced to watch the Augusta action on television.
While his friend and compatriot Alvaro Quiros fired a blistering 65 to share the opening round lead with Rory McIlroy, Fernandez-Castaño could only contemplate whether he would ever grace Georgia’s golfing mecca, and indeed faced a difficult battle just to keep his European Tour card for 2012.
But after overcoming his injury, the 29 year old made a strong return towards the end of 2011, finishing runner-up in the Castelló Masters before claiming his fifth European Tour victory in the Barclays Singapore Open
Those performances catapulted him back into the World’s Top 50, sealing his first invite to the Masters Tournament where Fernandez-Castaño, the European Tour’s only debutant this week, joined Quiros and two-time Green Jacket winner José María Olazábal for a practice round on Monday.
Following a remarkable turnaround in fortunes from this time last year, Fernandez-Castaño is determined to enjoy every aspect of Augusta’s splendour.
“It took me a long time to qualify for this tournament and to get invited, so I just want to enjoy myself,” he said. “It is a very special week and I’m looking forward to teeing off. I want to enjoy every minute of it.
“It’s been good so far, getting to know Augusta National. It’s a dream come true for me.”
Fernandez-Castaño has been tapping into the considerable wealth of experience possessed by 2012 European Ryder Cup Captain Olazábal, who was crowned Masters Champion in 1994 and 1999.
“I’ve played the last couple of days with Ollie and it is very special,” he said. “Ollie is one of my heroes.
“There is so much information that you need to learn that sometimes you get overloaded,” he said. “It is important to know what the course is about and where not to miss or go, but you have to not fear the course.
“You need to play with confidence and enjoy yourself. I cannot learn in three days what Ollie has learned in more than 23 years here.”
Fernandez-Castaño’s resurgence has also given him a realistic chance of returning to America as part of Olazábal’s Ryder Cup Team in September and he said his compatriot had played a big role in inspiring his comeback.
“I spoke with Ollie about my chances of playing in the Masters last summer and getting into The Ryder Cup Team and I said I was not in the top 50 in the world so I would struggle,” he said.
“He said to me, “don’t worry, you will come back, you will play in Masters one day, probably very soon”. Then I won in Singapore and everything changed. It’s been amazing. It’s unbelievable that I’m here today after last year being injured and watching it at home. It was so frustrating. It’s a great tournament to watch on television, but you definitely want to be here.
“I need to start playing a little better again but maybe this could be my turning point?”