Tiger Woods may not be there himself but the influence of the four-time winner on the field for the 80th Masters this week will be palpable amidst the azaleas and pines of Augusta National.
Take Russell Knox, for example. It was down to Woods producing a masterclass to claim his first Green Jacket in 1997 that the Scot is making his debut in the opening major of the season 19 years later. He had a poster on his bedroom wall in Inverness marking that triumph. It’s been the driving force, in fact, for Knox to make the journey up Magnolia Lane for the first time.
“I had probably watched TV coverage of the Masters before ’97, but that win– and I’m sure it must have been the same for anyone around my age – prompted me to play golf,” said the 30-year-old. “Seeing Tiger win in the manner he did in ’97 (carding rounds of 70-66-65-69 for an 18-under-par 270 total and an eight-shot victory) just made me want to work so much harder on my own game.”
Knox, who will fly the Saltire in Georgia on this occasion with the 1988 winner, Sandy Lyle, added: “It was my inspiration and that win ignited my dream of wanting to be out here on the PGA Tour and with the chance to play the Masters. Now I have that chance next week.
“But then I grew up in an era when Tiger dominated world golf and that’s why everyone now is so good. These young kids out here now like Jordan [Spieth] and Rory [McIlroy] are playing so great because of Tiger.
“He was my idol, for sure. I actually had a big poster hanging on my bedroom wall of Tiger winning at Augusta in ’97 that had all the records written on it that he broke that year. So, every time I would go to bed, there was this poster of Tiger staring at me.”
Woods, recovering from back surgeries, will miss the Masters for only the second time since making his debut at Augusta National as an amateur in 1995.
Now based in Jacksonville Beach in Florida, Knox secured his invitation to the Masters by becoming the first Scot to win a World Golf Championship last November.
Beating a field that included both Spieth and McIlroy to triumph in the HSBC Champions in Shanghai has seen his expectation levels rise. This may only be the fifth major of Knox’s career, but he’s certainly not heading there just to soak up the atmosphere and smell those lovely flowers.
“I was aware my HSBC win got me into Augusta, but it took some time to sink in due to the emotion of winning my first PGA Tour title and the million things that were going on in my head that day,” said Knox, who paid his first visit to the course in February and is planning to pick Lyle’s brains about the unique test it provides in one of his practice rounds before the gun goes on Thursday morning.
“I feel my career is on track and I am a big believer in that there is no need to rush things. You are ready when you are ready. I would have loved, of course, to be playing at Augusta National five years ago, but then if it takes me five more years to feel comfortable to maybe win one Masters, then fine.
“I clearly have a great chance of also getting back to Augusta next year through my FedEx Cup standing (he was lying fifth before the Shell Houston Open which concludes today), so this year will be a good year to learn the course and everything that goes on around the Masters, though I may play great on my first visit, you never know.
“People say it takes playing a few times at Augusta to get to know the course properly, and I don’t disagree with that, but then if you hit good shots, you hit good shots.
“And I will not be going to Augusta with the goal of just making the cut as I have set the bar higher than that, even though I have only played in four majors, and I’ve made the cut in one. Of course, making the cut would ensure a nice little pay cheque but, with the HSBC win behind me, I feel I am getting better and stronger with every tournament I contest. So it will not be just about showing up at Augusta to make the cut because I am better than that.”
This is a Masters of milestones. As well as the event reaching octogenarian status, it is 30 years since Jack Nicklaus claimed the last of his six successes at 46 – the oldest player to pull on a Green Jacket. It’s also 25 years since Ian Woosnam became the only Welsh winner and 20 years since Nick Faldo won for the third time following a last-round capitulation by Greg Norman.
The same thing, of course, happened to McIlroy in 2011, when the Northern Irishman closed with an 80 to open the door for South African Charl Schwartzel. As was the case 12 months ago, McIlroy is heading to Augusta National bidding to complete a career Grand Slam. To do so, he’ll need to become the first European winner since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999.
“It’s just been a bad nine holes for the last couple of years,” the four-time major winner told augusta.com of his most recent performances in this event – eighth behind Bubba Watson in 2014 then fourth as Jordan Spieth marked his arrival on one of the game’s biggest stages 12 months ago.
“I’ve had a couple of bad nine-hole stretches which has really taken me out of the tournament. And I guess again that’s more mental errors than anything else, and maybe when you find yourself a couple over and not trying to push too hard and trying to stay patient. So I think there’s a big patience thing for me at Augusta.
“I’m very positive and optimistic going back this year, because the last few years, I’ve improved my performance there. I had my best finish last year, and I played the golf course pretty much the way I wanted to.
“I think confidence is a huge thing going into Augusta. If you’re confident with your game and you’ve got good belief in yourself, then that makes the week much easier. I would love [a victory] to be this year but, if not, I’m going to have plenty more chances, but I feel like I’ve been trending in the right direction.”
Be it McIlroy, Spieth, Jason Day or even Adam Scott or Rickie Fowler, this Masters has the makings of creating the sport’s next poster boy.