McIlroy can crown Irish love affair with Masters
ELECTRIC! The buzz started before dawn today on Berckmans Road, Augusta, as crowds gathered outside the public entrance to paradise.
Insulated against the cold by excitement, people of all ages, shapes and sizes chattered in the dark like kids queuing at Disneyland.
Richmond County deputy sheriffs whistle and bark to keep the growing throng in order and out of the teeming Masters traffic. Around the corner on Washington Road, small knots of people pause to gaze up Magnolia Lane. The most famous stretch of asphalt in golf is quiet and ghostly. Few of the exalted are about at this ungodly hour.
Shortly after sunrise, the dam opens and a river of people flows through security. Down the broad avenue they march, past all-day queues outside the souvenir superstore and pour onto the golf course. It's easy to pick out the first-timers as their jaws drop.
In 37 years of sports reporting, Augusta National is the only arena which exceeds all expectation. Its breathtaking beauty, awesome scale and the fervour which rises through Masters week to a crescendo on Sunday fits its billing as 'The Cathedral in The Pines'.
David Feherty brilliantly captured the awe he felt when he played the Masters for the first and only time in 1992, finishing 52nd.
"I remember feeling like I was in a Salvador Dali painting," he said. "I felt there should have been clocks dripping out of the pine trees. It just didn't seem real to me. I never really got comfortable with it ... It was like, 'Me? Here? Really? That doesn't fit'."
Even the coolest dudes get butterflies here. Adam Scott, who last April became the first Australian to don the famous Green Jacket, admits: "It used take me six or seven holes at the Masters to calm down before I could feel my hands and feet.
"My legs were jelly, especially if I didn't hit any good shots early on – and the first hole at Augusta is the toughest on the course. It's a slap in the face from the get-go."
Feherty is one of just 13 Irishmen to have played the Masters. However, Rory McIlroy's instalment as favourite this week gives measure to the vast change in outlook and international profile of our leading players in 46 years since Joe Carr's pioneering step onto the Augusta stage in 1967.
Famously, amateur legend Carr played with title-holder Jack Nicklaus in '67 and four-time winner Arnie Palmer in '68, on both occasions making the cut as the two great champions fell by the wayside. Sadly, the Dubliner and his playing companion Sam Snead missed out in '69.
The first Irish professional to make the long and expensive 'pre-season' trip across the Atlantic to the Masters was Christy O'Connor Jnr in 1977.
Nine years later, formidable Bangor amateur Garth McGimpsey made the first of his two back-to-back appearances at Augusta, followed by hot pro prospect Ronan Rafferty in 1990.
The Warrenpoint native, then 26, would serve well his status as Europe's Order of Merit winner by sharing 14th place with Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Larry Mize, Scott Hoch and Craig Stadler on his Masters debut.
Rafferty missed the cut in '91 but still became the first Irish golfer to take home a 'prize' from Augusta. Much of the charm of the Masters stems from the fact that it's a tournament, not a championship. Since 1934, when the legendary Bobby Jones staged his first Augusta Invitational, the event has guarded its independence.
Chief among its splendid traditions is a strict code of etiquette for invitees (that's players to you and me) and patrons (that's spectators). For example, mobile phones, periscopes, running and bare feet are banned and while cheering is encouraged, rowdy behaviour is not. Transgressors are ejected by security, usually never to return.
Uniquely among professional events, Augusta acknowledges eagles, albatrosses, holes-in-one and the low score on tournament days with special mementos. So, in 1991, Rafferty won a pair of crystal goblets for his three on Friday at the par-five 15th.
Rafferty was the harbinger of a new generation of Irish professionals for whom meeting and beating the world's elite would become second nature – an era which ultimately yielded seven Major titles (and counting) in six years from Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, McIlroy and Darren Clarke.
No Irish golfer has won the Masters but Clarke set a process in train when he finished eighth on his 1998 debut at Augusta, featuring a 67 on Saturday, the day's low score.
Harrington made the first of 14 successive Masters appearances in 2000 and two years later shared fifth, which, along with his placing in 2008, still counts as the best finish by an Irish golfer. Clarke broke new ground when he emerged from mud and a maelstrom in 2003 to become the first Irishman to lead after a round at the Masters with a phenomenal opening 66. McIlroy, whose effortless length, natural draw and soaring ball flight makes him look a natural-born winner here, brought it to a different level on his third visit to Augusta in 2011.
The Holywood star skated into the lead with superb first-round 65 then held it for 63 holes before imploding on the back nine on Sunday on his way to an 80, the worst final round by a 54-hole leader.
McIlroy's US Open victory 70 days later showed he'd sustained no long-term damage. Yet serious Saturday setbacks here in 2012 and again in 2013 suggest he has some learning to do and a little baggage to shed at Augusta.
Clarke and McDowell also play this week. As the US Tour's hottest putter right now, G-Mac is capable of improving his Masters best of 12th in 2012, if he shakes off personal misgivings around Augusta.
Since Rafferty's breakthrough, Ireland's haul here includes one crystal bowl (for Harrington's ace at 16 in 2004), four crystal vases (low round scores posted by Clarke, 67 and 66, Harrington, 68, and McIlroy, 65) and 14 pairs of crystal goblets marking eagles.
It's only a matter of time, one suspects, before McIlroy completes the set and becomes a genuine man in green at Augusta.
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