THE disruptive weather across the United States that has lent meteorologists a higher profile than golfers in some press tents on the PGA Tour this year suggests the trickiest question of all to ask about the Masters is not who will win the first major of 2005, but when will it finish?
Although winds gusted up to 60mph in Augusta on Saturday, sleet fell in nearby Atlanta and Georgia was battered by thunderstorms which prevented any play at the BellSouth until the weekend, the sun shone teasingly on Augusta National yesterday morning. While rain is in the forecast for Thursday and Friday, fingers are crossed that the annual rite of spring the golfing world knows and loves as the Masters will unfold according to schedule.
If the Players Championship two weeks ago featured the strongest field in golf competing over one of the most testing courses in America, the truth was incessant weather delays and the anti-climax of a Monday finish stripped the $8 million tournament of its usual sheen. After three successive damp squibs in Florida and Georgia it came as something of a relief to learn the skies aren’t expected to weep copiously on Augusta’s azaleas and the dogwoods, or at least not as cruelly as they did on the fairways at Sawgrass and Sugarloaf.
Having said that, this could still turn out to be a lachrymose Masters. Although the player himself has still to reach a final decision, the hope is six time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus may tee up in the tournament for the 45th time on Thursday. Moreover, his involvement as a competitor will almost certainly mark his farewell to the tournament.
Since the death of his grandson, Jake, aged 17 months, who drowned in a hot tub accident last month, Nicklaus, 65, has had more pressing matters on his mind than whether or not to hit a little white ball into a hole. The only event he’s absolutely committed to playing this year is the Open at St Andrews, where his son, Steve, Jake’s father, will caddie for him and the great man will say goodbye to the game’s oldest championship.
Nicklaus played a practice round at Augusta a week ago and is due to be honoured by the city today before giving a press conference tomorrow morning and attending the champions’ dinner in the clubhouse that evening. According to his biographer and friend, Ken Bowden: "It’s plain and simply a guess, but I suspect once he gets there, with family members urging him on, he’ll decide to go ahead and play."
A year past after carding successive 75s, Nicklaus, who has long been uncomfortable with life as a ceremonial golfer, indicated he was coming to the end of his time at the Masters. While he would have preferred to walk away quietly, Hootie Johnson, the chairman of Augusta National, telephoned the past champion and asked him to come back for a proper send-off. Golf-wise, Nicklaus was in decent shape when he eclipsed Craig Stadler and Tom Watson among others to win $340,000 (the largest cheque of his career) at a Skins game in Hawaii earlier this year.
A winner at Augusta as long ago as 1963 and as recently as 1986, Nicklaus’s desire to be the best golfer he could be - which turned out to be the greatest player who ever lived - was never achieved at the expense of his family. That’s why if those closest to him want Jack to bid adieu to the Masters, then the chances are he will listen.
Nicklaus’s career, of course, was defined by the majors. He’s played in 116 thus far, won 18 and finished in the top ten on no fewer than 71 occasions. His record of six Masters wins is the game’s most notable accomplishment since Harry Vardon won six Opens.
At least partly because of Nicklaus, modern day players are defined by their success in the majors. The fact no European golfer has won the Masters since Nick Faldo in 1996 - the continent’s last major champion was Paul Lawrie in 1999 - has increased the level of expectation surrounding aspiring British challengers such as Paul Casey, sixth on his debut last year, and Luke Donald, runner-up at Sawgrass.
Of all Europe’s hopefuls - Padraig Harrington was expected to play even though his father remains seriously ill - the player best equipped to succeed at Augusta is Sergio Garcia. Having made his debut here in 1999 when he became the first European to win low amateur honours, Garcia’s reputation as a major veteran is belied by the fact he’s still only 25 - two years younger than Casey and Donald.
Garcia’s youth was exposed 12 months ago in a petulant diatribe against the media for not paying him more attention after a thrilling closing round of 66. His golf spoke more eloquently than his words that day and if the Spaniard performs under the gun at Augusta then he’s the European who can challenge the ‘Famous Five’ of Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, defending champion Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen for a green jacket.
As for Forfar’s Stuart Wilson, the Amateur champion arrived in Augusta feeling as if he suffered from self-inflicted wounds on Saturday when he lost the Georgia Cup match played in strong wind at the Golf Club of Georgia to US Amateur champion Ryan Moore by 2 and 1. Needing two putts from 20 feet on the 17th to level the match, Wilson showed his lack of competitive experience on fast greens by charging his first putt 15 feet past the hole and four putting. "Ryan is a great player and can probably play better than he did on Saturday," observed Wilson. "But I beat myself."
In the absence of Colin Montgomerie, the only other Scot invited to the Masters this week is out of form 1988 champion Sandy Lyle.