Tuesday 21 November 2017

Padriag Harrington: Augusta creates a unique level of pressure

No course can rival mental test at Augusta, Pádraig Harrington tells Dermot Gilleece

Augusta National Golf Club
Augusta National Golf Club

Dermot Gilleece

It is a measure of his competitive frailty these days that Tiger Woods tends to generate most interest in the run-up to tournaments.

Looking towards this week's 79th US Masters, an American observer put the case rather starkly when he said: "Come Thursday, after he's had plenty of attention during the practice days, somebody else will shoot an opening 67 and that will be Tiger done at Augusta for another year."

We're looking at greatly changed times among the Georgia pines. After a 10-year period in which Woods and Phil Mickelson won six Masters between them, there have been six new winners since 2007.

And if there's to be another newcomer next Sunday, the hope in these parts is that Rory McIlroy will secure the only title to have eluded a sustained Irish onslaught on the Majors in recent years. Such an achievement, of course, would deliver the rather special bonus of a coveted career Grand Slam, which Woods first achieved in 2000, when a year younger at 24.

From a time when it wasn't unusual to have a Masters with no Irish representative, the country now has an unprecedented five professionals in the field, including Shane Lowry as a debutant. Darren Clarke is making a 13th appearance; Graeme McDowell plays for a seventh successive year and, after a year's absence, Pádraig Harrington returns for his 15th challenge, courtesy of his recent victory in the Honda Classic.

On his way to a second Masters title last year, Bubba Watson had average drives of 305.63 yards, which indicates that the 44-inch big stick was frequently left in his bag. When given full rein, however, a favourable deflection off a kindly branch resulted in a fourth-round faded drive of 366 yards on the long 13th, leaving him with a mere 144-yard wedge to the green.

Significantly, an average club-head speed of 128mph generated a ball-speed of close on 200mph, which was almost 30mph faster than any other player in the field. And it allowed Watson to play the par fives in eight under par, without carding a bogey.

Still, in a final round of 69, he was only level-par for the back-nine. And Jordan Spieth was one worse in a homeward 37. In fact of the top-three finishers, only Jonas Blixt, tied second with Spieth, three strokes adrift of Watson, managed to break par in a closing nine of 35.

"That's not normal in the Masters," said Harrington last week. "Shoot level-par for the last nine holes and you're unlikely to win. Normally you have to cover that stretch in three or four under.

"The nature of the challenge creates a unique level of pressure. Part of it has to do with knowing that you must make birdies and take shots on down the stretch, notwithstanding the normal pressures associated with those situations. You might even have to make some eagles because that's the way they set the golf course up."

He went on: "Augusta tests you more than any other course. It demands a higher degree of nerve and skill, especially on and around the greens. For instance, there's huge skill attached to touch-putting. I'm sure I've three-putted many times at Augusta, but I can't remember four-putting. I'm not carrying that baggage."

Thirty years on from his first Masters triumph, Bernard Langer describes Augusta's greens as "the most complex we play in the entire season - so quick and with so many undulations."

He explained: "When I played there for the first time in 1982, I was 11 strokes behind the leader after 36 holes and missed the cut. I carded 11 three-putts. It was absolutely crazy."

Over the years, I've observed a number of talented Irish players whose "give-it-a-lash" mentality would probably preclude them from breaking 80 around Augusta. Fail to give it the respect it demands and you're certain to suffer, perhaps grievously. Which highlights the considerable depth of Joe Carr's talent, given that while some way past his peak when he competed there for the first time in 1967, he still managed to make the cut on two out of three appearances.

Unless a player possesses Bubba Watson's extraordinary gifts, course-management is the key. It's no coincidence that Jack Nicklaus, who could negotiate his way around a golf course better than any player in history, happened to win a record six Masters. Nor should we be surprised that for the opposite reason, Greg Norman was unable to protect a six-stroke lead against Nick Faldo on a fateful Sunday in 1996.

"I reckon if you gave Nicklaus a bag of irons - take all the woods away - and put him on the first tee at Augusta six shots ahead of Faldo, he would have made a better job of it than Norman did," was the cutting reaction of Peter Alliss. "In golf you get all these thoughts and sometimes they won't go away. Norman couldn't control his mind."

The Shark wasn't alone in his inability to handle the pressure of Augusta National in pursuit of a coveted prize. No other championship course contains so much potential for disaster. Nor is there another arena which offers so many back-nine scoring opportunities, if the mind is equal to the challenge.

For all his waywardness, Woods had mental strength in abundance. So did Mickelson, despite a tendency to succumb to recklessness. On the assumption that this greatness is very much behind them, however, we must now look to the younger brigade and their remarkable leader.

McIlroy is bright enough to know precisely what he needs to do. And this doesn't mean a repeat of last year's performance, when a share of eighth place served only to heighten his disgust at playing the par fives in level-par over the four days. "You just can't do that and hope to win," he admitted. "You're looking to play them in something like 10 to 12-under."

Which made him all the more aware of his potential around a course dear to his heart since being tied 20th on his debut in 2009. He has long since come to terms with his self-destruction within sight of victory two years later, but it should be a matter of some soul-searching that in six Masters appearances, he has managed only one top 10 finish, and that was 12 months ago.

As an unexpected bonus last year, he had the opportunity of playing with 51-year-old Augusta member, Jeff Knox, as his marker in Saturday's third round, where he was beaten by a stroke - 71 to the amateur's 70. "I don't think I've seen anyone read the greens as well as Jeff does," McIlroy later reflected, in a pointer towards another meeting with Knox during practice this week.

Meanwhile, Lowry will be experiencing Augusta for the first time in the company of his friend and caddie, Dermot Byrne. It promises to be a marvellous experience for both of them, but Fuzzy Zoeller, who remains the only player since World War II to have won the Masters at the first attempt, would prefer Lowry to take a different option.

Zoeller, the champion in 1979, two years before the old Bermuda greens were converted to bent-grass, maintains it is not especially bright for a rookie to bring his own caddie. "If they were smart, they would do like we did back then and use one of the club's caddies," he said. "Though I accept we had no choice in the matter [local caddies were then obligatory], there's nothing to stop players going back to the old system.

"No matter how much a newcomer has been told, the greens will still be a surprise. You can hit for the flags only when you've got a short enough club in your hand, and that won't be too often. I can remember my caddie shouting to me: 'You don't wanna miss left' or 'You don't wanna miss right.' So when I did miss, I made sure it was on the correct side. I did exactly as he told me; I had no other choice since I didn't know where I was going."

Given the reluctance these days for a player to part with his own bagman, Spieth seems to have reached an astute compromise on his Augusta debut last year. As a 20-year-old rookie, he had several brain-storming sessions with two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw and his man, Carl Johnson, who has caddied in no fewer than 53 Masters.

Still, 1982 champion Craig Stadler insists that there's no substitute for personal experience. As he put it: "You don't know where not to hit the ball until you've put it there."

Of the younger Americans, Spieth looks best equipped, tactically and emotionally, for the task ahead, though one imagines eyes from this side of the pond being focused very clearly on our Holywood star. At this stage in McIlroy's career, however, it is far too early to be measuring his full potential, even with four Majors to his credit.

We know he can be very, very good when the mood takes him. And we know he can out-battle the best when needs demand. But he is so different in temperament from his childhood hero, Woods, and current mentor, Nicklaus, that realistic assessments have to be limited to his deeds inside the ropes.

There, it must be said, his attempts at coming to terms with the special examination of Augusta National, leave considerable room for improvement.

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