IT was an excellent debut. It would have been even better but for a damaging trip through Amen Corner on Saturday. Stephen Gallacher can be proud of his first visit to Augusta National.
In three of the four rounds this week on a brute of a golf course baring all its teeth, he either broke par or matched it. His closing two-under 70 was the best of the four. It contained five birdies, including the opening two holes and his third of the week at the 15th. If only the tenth and 11th had been so productive.
The tenth cost him five shots; four were spilled at the 11th. Take those out and the 39-year-old could, at the very least, already have booked his return ticket next year by finishing in the top 16. Instead, he finished with a six-over par total of 294.
Gallacher, who finished in a tie for 34th, wasn’t looking back with any regrets. He came here with no expectations. Making the cut was praiseworthy at the first attempt. He’s watched the Masters often enough at home to know it’s a course that has a fearsome bite.
In the main, he played it extremely well. It was another sign of his growing maturity as a player on these big stages. More of the same in the next three majors and he’ll be in that European team for the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles.
For now, though, he’ll settle for this, an effort that will have made his uncle Bernard and the rest of the Gallacher family proud of their Bathgate boy. “I’ve loved it,” he admitted. “It’s been brilliant to play here and three rounds of 72 or better is not bad your first experience.”
“I played good all week, really. Just a slight mishap yesterday,” he added of the 81 that had tumbled him out of contention after sitting tied for tenth at the halfway stage. I putted a bit better today. That was the difference.”
After Saturday’s nightmare – his worst round since his last-day 82 in the 2005 Italian Open – Gallacher found himself out in the second group on the final day along with Dutchman Joost Luiten (who, incidentally, closed with a five-under 67). It was a good pairing for the Scot, especially after playing with American Russell Henley the previous day. As well as being tortoise-like on a golf course, Henley isn’t the chatty-type, either. In contrast, Gallacher and Luiten, team-mates in the recent EurAsia Cup in Malaysia, looked as though they were a couple of mates out for a bounce game.
Maintaining what he’d done all week, Gallacher played the first hole – one of the toughest on the course – almost to perfection. He found the fairway, then hit a great approach to eight feet behind the flag and in it went. After feeling he’d “putted terribly” the previous day, it was just what the doctor had ordered. He also birdied the par-5 second. It was almost an eagle as a monster putt – a curly one, too – came within a fraction of toppling into the hole.
Flitting between the Gallacher and Sandy Lyle groups yesterday were a couple of kilted fans. “It must be hot under that,” commented someone as they passed them at the fourth. While it probably went unnoticed amongst the Americans, there were also a couple of Scottish supporters wearing football tops. It’s a free world, of course, and British people, in particular, do seem to like showing off their team’s colours. Not at Augusta National, though, please.
As with most of the shots he’d played in the opening four holes, Gallacher’s approach to the fifth was one some of the later starters would have bitten off his hand for. Into a tricky pin position, he stuck it to ten feet left of the cup and that one was holed, too.
The next two holes were a perfect example of how fine the margins are on these greens, most of which have ridges running through them. At the sixth, his tee shot pitched around ten feet left and short of the flag. It was high up that particular ridge, though, and ended 40 feet away. His first putt up and over the bank was well short and led to the day’s first bogey.
At the seventh, though, he found the perfect spot. It landed well past the flag and had the fans leaping out of their Masters chairs around the green as it almost went in. “Easy game, huh,” commented one fan as Luiten also made birdie from almost as close.
After two pars to follow, he was out in 33, three-under. Could he finally negotiate Amen Corner without suffering some of the previous three days’ damage there? No. A pulled drive resulted in a double-bogey 6 at the tenth. It cost him a total of five shots during the week. Four had already been frittered away at the 11th, so a par was welcome this time.
“It’s a tough hole, isn’t it, 520 yards or something,” noted Gallacher afterwards of the tenth. “Doubling it from the middle of the fairway yesterday was a shocker and today I clipped two trees and they just spattered them away.”
A touch of army golf – right then left – led to a bogey at the 14th before the 15th proved rewarding once again. Through the back in two, he left his first pitch on the edge but then putted in for a third birdie there. He picked up another one from around 15 feet at the 16th. It made amends for being robbed at the same hole the previous day. Gallacher has never got to play the 17th with Eisenhower’s Tree up the left after it was lost to an ice storm earlier this year.
His drive on this occasion wouldn’t have been troubled by it as it was up the right side. It looked a good position to come in.
His approach was tugged, though, and found sand. He got up and down to save par there. Then at the last hole, too. His approach landed on the green but spun back off. He held his nerve, however, to hole a five-footer.
“Definitely,” he replied to being asked if he already had his sights on being back here next year, when he might not have to buy as many presents for friends back home.
“I think my credit card got hit in the merchandise shop this week,” he reported, smiling. “There’s going to be plenty of green Augusta stuff back home now!”