John Huggan Masters preview: Green jacket required

Jose Maria Olazabal gets his green jacket from 1998 champion Mark O'Meara. Picture: Getty
Jose Maria Olazabal gets his green jacket from 1998 champion Mark O'Meara. Picture: Getty
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IT ISN’T the most startling Masters-related statistic you’ll ever hear. And it’s not much compared to the total futility that accurately sums up Australia’s ill-fated efforts to win the thing over the last 79 years. But the undeniable fact that no European golfer has won at Augusta National in this century is beginning to be a wee bit bothersome.

Especially when one considers that, not so long ago, the Old World came close to dominating the year’s opening major. Between 1980 and 1999, six European stars (Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Jose Maria Olazabal) hung a total of 11 green jackets in their respective closets.

So what’s going on? Why has this supposedly golden generation of European golfers failed to impose themselves in the manner of their illustrious predecessors?

Even the perennial response to such questions – the presence and pre-eminence of one Tiger Woods – does not fully explain the lack of a European Master golfer since Olazabal’s second victory in 1999. Yes, Woods has four Masters titles to his credit, but only three of those have come since the Millennium and none since 2005. That leaves ten available to the rest, Masters Tournaments won by a Fijian, an Argentine, a Canadian, two South Africans and three Americans – a diverse bunch that contains not even one European. Perhaps most disappointingly, this litany of failure has been perpetrated on a course that asks so many probing and searching questions of so many different facets of the game.

“You have to do everything well to win at Augusta,” admits Lee Westwood, who more than once has come close to breaking his major duck in the Masters. “You have to putt well. Your short game has to sharp. You have to hit it well tee-to-green. And you have to score well on the par-5s. There’s a lot of thinking to be done too. Any gaps in your game will be exposed immediately.”

By extension then, Westwood and his European compatriots have collectively suffered just such a fate. Somewhere between first tee and 18th green, Augusta National has found them out.

“You have to be a great putter to win the Masters, at least for that week,” contends leading coach Peter Kostis, who doubles as a long-time commentator for the CBS network at the Masters. “Yes, some streaky putters have won at Augusta – those who got ‘hot’ at the right time – but none of the Europeans have managed that. When you look at the top European players since 2000 – apart from Luke Donald – none of them have been consistently good putters. Lee, for example, could have won a couple of green jackets by now – if he were a better putter. Back in the days when Faldo, Ballesteros, Olazabal and Langer were winning the Masters, what they all had in common was great putting. The last line of defence at Augusta National is the fiercely sloping greens. So, if you can’t putt, you can’t score well there.

“I think Rory McIlroy would have won a couple of years ago if he had been a better putter. The putts he missed early on in the final round seemed to rattle him. Had he made those, I think he would have calmed down and the back-nine debacle that did ensue would not have happened.”

Kostis makes an excellent point. While it has not always been the case – videotape of any Masters from as recently as the mid-1970s reveals greens significantly slower than today’s mirror-like surfaces – expertise with what used to be the shortest club in every bag is Exhibit One in any analysis of the winning formula at Augusta National.

“Much is made of the fact that a right-to-left draw is the preferred shot round there,” continues Kostis, who works with Paul Casey. “But Jack Nicklaus won six times playing a left-to-right fade. Which is what Tiger does too, most of the time. Whatever shot shape a player prefers, however, another big Masters-winning key is how well he controls his approach shots.

“You have to be below the hole on those greens to give yourself a decent chance. That isn’t going to make putting easy, but it does make it less difficult.”

There’s more to this whole thing than mere technique, too. If the players themselves are to be believed, the pressure of the back nine on Masters Sunday is like nothing else in the game outside of, maybe, the Ryder Cup.

“When I think of guys who have won the Masters, they all managed their emotions well over the four days,” confirms Casey, who, just fully recovered from a shoulder injury, will this year miss what America likes to call golf’s Rite of Spring. “Say what you will about the course – the immaculate preparation, the whiteness of the bunkers, the speed of the greens – everything is done for a reason.

“The bunkers are actually so white so that the sand will blind you. The trees grow in over the tees so that you can’t flight the ball any way you want. And the fairways are cut from green to tee to reduce run on the ball. Everything has a purpose.

“Plus, the course tests the players mentally as much as it does physically. It frustrates them and plays with their minds. More than once I’ve seen Augusta set up as tough as it could possibly be on Monday and Tuesday and it scares the crap out of guys. I’ve seen players actually panicking on the range after a practice round.

“The winner is one who understands all of that. He rolls with the punches and manages himself well. He takes his medicine when he makes a mistake. You do have to take the course on – if you lay down it will crush you – but you have to know when to take what it gives you. Often enough, when you get into the wrong spot, a bogey is a good score.”

Still, the solution to the no-Europeans conundrum remains something of a mystery. But Kostis does sense a swift end to the so far 14-year drought.

“Rory is a better putter than he was two years ago,” he says. “So is Lee. Which will improve their chances of victory. I think Rory has the best opportunity though. He went to see [former USPGA champion and renowned putting coach] Dave Stockton right after the disappointment of 2011 and made himself a better putter. He knew that had let him down.”

Casey, in his unwanted role of spectator, has a different perspective, however.

“What may make a difference is that so many of our guys are playing more golf in the US,” he says. “That will better prepare them for the majors and Augusta in particular.

“But the bottom line is that I have no idea why a European hasn’t won there in so long.

“Sometimes weird stuff just happens. Look at this year on the PGA Tour. An American has won every event so far. That’s impossible to explain. It’s like ten reds in succession coming up on the roulette wheel. It’s strange, but it does happen.”

Most things do. But, when it comes to the next European victory at the Masters, only eventually.