Monday 26 February 2018

Pitfalls lurk at every corner for Augusta's anointed ones

Inner strength will be vital in deciding who gets it done on the toughest finish in golf, says Dermot Gilleece

Dermot Gilleece

D own a celebrated back nine, where towering pines change from elegant sentinels into humbling hazards, several aspirants could be aiming for one of golf's most coveted prizes next Sunday afternoon. In those critical moments at Augusta National, victory awaits the player with the greatest self-belief; the man who can convince himself that this is the day he becomes US Masters champion.

By his own admission, Lee Westwood was made to feel physically ill by that prospect when his name appeared on top of the leaderboard entering the homeward journey in 1999. Yet, according to Pádraig Harrington, who has some form in the handling of such matters, the challenge must be embraced.

"It could be your lucky day," said the Dubliner. "Either way, from my own experience and from talking to people who have successfully negotiated that particular stretch, you've got to believe it's your time. Absolutely."

Never was such confidence more in evidence than 12 months ago when, from a position wide of the 13th fairway, Phil Mickelson faced an extremely daunting challenge, even for someone of his gambling instincts. With the ball on pine-needles 207 yards from the hole, long-time caddie, 'Bones', was visibly rattling at the very idea of what his master intended to do.

It is now a glorious part of Masters history how Mickelson threaded a six-iron between two beckoning pines to smash the shot of a lifetime over water and within four feet of the 13th pin. Though a potentially outrageous eagle was missed, an improbable birdie maintained the momentum of an unstoppable victory surge.

In the seven years since the first of Mickelson's three Masters triumphs, he has returned by way of pilgrimage to the spot on the 18th green from where he rolled in an 18-foot birdie putt in 2004. There, he has hit a few practice putts in the hope or rekindling the magic. This week, he will have another moment to remember.

Mickelson made it clear, however, that his homage among the pines right of the 13th will be confined strictly to the practice rounds. "I do plan on hitting the fairway all four days," he said with a smile. Then, echoing Harrington's point, he added: "I think the great feeling of confidence I get when I drive through the gates of Magnolia Lane, is one of the reasons I've been successful there."

There's a story about an old pro who made countless attempts during his lifetime to quality for the Masters. Sadly, it remained an unfulfilled ambition as he lay on his deathbed. Looking into the eyes of his wife, he whispered: "I do hope heaven isn't that tough to get into."

From a time when Ireland felt fortunate simply to have a representative in the Masters field, it may seem somewhat arrogant to be expecting reparation for the wipe-out of last year. But this is the price that Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Harrington must pay for their elevated status in the game.

All three missed the Augusta cut in 2010 and have been showing mixed form so far this year. When I discussed McDowell's prospects of further Major honours with Nick Faldo, it is interesting that he picked the Open at Royal St George's and not Augusta as a likely target, highlighting his skill at handling links bounces.

"I'm trying to push the negativity out of my mind from previous Masters performances," said McDowell, who has missed two cuts in three appearances. "I genuinely love Augusta and my objective is to go there next week as if I'm playing it for the first time; concentrate on all the good stuff and simply let it happen." His preparation, which was hampered by rain in Orlando on Thursday, involved a trip last Tuesday to Augusta where he watched Mickelson pack in work on the greens with coach Dave Pelz. McDowell has been attempting to rectify problems with his mid and short-irons, which he blames for poor recent form, including a first-round 80 at Bay Hill.

Having played with a fade last year, he found himself slipping back in recent months to his natural draw. "My swing is a little more closed than it was and I'm trying to make it more neutral," he added. "I've got to get the draw more under control. You've got to be able to hit that soft-landing five or six iron into some of Augusta's greens and when I played my best in recent years, that was one of the strengths of my game."

He went on to rubbish the notion that a suspect short-game limits McIlroy's prospects. "I wish I had Rory's ability around the greens," he said. "With his wonderful hands, his game is tailor-made for Augusta. I fully expect him to have a really good week next week."

For much of the last fortnight, McIlroy has been staying at the Old Palm Club in Florida with his caddie JP Fitzgerald and coach Michael Bannon. And the stint was broken by a trip to Augusta to re-acquaint himself with the upcoming challenge.

Augusta National has undergone extensive changes through the decades, yet as a second-shot golf course it is believed to retain the essential character of 60 years ago when Ben Hogan and Sam Snead were in their pomp. "The shot values are the same," says Augusta's consulting architect, Tom Fazio, who was also responsible for upgrading Waterville.

As if to prove the point, power-hitter Bubba Watson now negotiates the par-four seventh (450 yards) with a three iron off the tee, followed by a seven- or eight-iron second shot. When the hole measured 360 yards, Nick Faldo played a two iron followed by an eight or nine. And where Watson hits four wood and seven iron to the tight 505-yard 11th, Raymond Floyd famously hit a driver followed by a pulled seven iron into the water in the play-off with Faldo in 1990, when it was 455 yards.

Apart from additional yardage, the most notable change I have observed in more than 20 years going there was in 1999 when there was a feeling of something very different underfoot: the unmistakable softness of lush grass. For the first time since 1960, Augusta had rough, grandly referred to as a one-and-three-eight-inch 'secondary cut'.

"The idea is that you'll have some uncertainty playing the ball, fearing a little hit of a flier," was the judgement of Jack Nicklaus. "They simply want you to wish you hadn't gone in there."

Which is no more than a preamble to its most searching test: the fearsome greens. Not until the first competitive shot is hit on Thursday next will players experience the precise nature of this challenge. "That's when the greens take on a menacing, different hue," said Faldo.

But even in practice, they are no picnic. "I consider myself to be a pretty good player, but those greens are way too fast for me," was the rueful reaction of Butch Harmon, who three-putted four times while failing to break 80 there on a Sunday prior to the Masters several years ago.

He was then guiding the fortunes of Tiger Woods, who is now hoping Canadian coach Sean Foley can help him break the recent Augusta dominance of arch-rival Mickelson. Augusta was always a perfect fit for the Woods game in the way its open spaces indulged his occasional waywardness. But that was before his current troubled state, when the putter was the most reliable club in his bag. Not any more.

In preparing for Augusta, Harrington tries to die each putt into the front of the hole. It must never hit the back. "The course on the three practice days is not the course you'll play on Thursday, Friday and Saturday," he said. "And the one on Sunday afternoon will be different again. You learn from experience that the greens get very, very fast, forcing you to become very, very tentative. So you need confidence to stand over 12-footers and not rush them four or five feet by."

Meanwhile, after a public dressing-down last year from Augusta chairman Billy Payne, Woods is achieving a sort of Masters rehabilitation -- through a sponsorship deal, naturally. When I attended the launch of EA's 'Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters' in Hawaii earlier this year, I learned that through an association with Woods dating back to 1998, the company's product sales had surpassed 25 million. So, a unit cost of $59.99 for the Xbox version of the latest offering, suggests a potential of close on $1.5 billion. Which, even allowing for cheaper versions, would explain how EA could still bring Bubba Watson on board as an additional, 'playable character' in the Masters game. And how CBS commentators, Jim Nantz and David Feherty, were also brought along for the ride.

Westwood's record of third, third, second, 16th and second in his last five Majors is not a million miles removed from the second, second, second and 34th place finishes which Ernie Els carried into Augusta in 2001 when, incidentally, he was tied sixth behind Woods. A crucial difference, however, is that Els had already won two US Opens by that stage. Westwood has yet to achieve the elusive breakthrough.

Back in 1999 in what was then his third Masters, his reaction as leader on the 10th tee was to go bogey, double-bogey, bogey. "One minute I felt on top of the world, the next I was wondering if I would ever make another par," he said. "That's how quick things can change on the back nine at Augusta.

"Having ticked off the world number one spot from my career goals, there's only the Majors left now. It means that instead of looking towards another level when there isn't one, you've got to try and improve everything by a tiny percentage. The margins between finishing second and winning are so fine . . . a quarter of a shot a round can be the difference between making or missing a play-off at the end of the week.

"I'm really excited about the Masters where second place last year will stand me in good stead. In fact, my experience of 11 appearances is going to make a massive difference. It's something you can't buy, like knowing how to relax on the three days leading up to it rather than wearing myself out from practising too much."

Westwood is also banking on another key ingredient. In certain situations, he will be treading in the footsteps of Seve Ballesteros, who relished Augusta like no other challenge. This has to do with caddie, Billy Foster, who has a fund of memories from his time on the conquistador's bag.

"Billy never stops mentioning Seve and the stuff he did in the Masters and the places he got up and down from," said Westwood. "I'm sure the game-plan Billy formulates for talking me around is based on his experiences with Seve and the way he played Augusta. Which can't hurt, can it? I know I'm better for having Billy on my bag. That's for sure." Did he see himself as favourite? "I'd go for me and Phil as joint favourites," was the Englishman's confident reply.

In 1949, Sam Snead became the first Masters winner to be awarded the famous jacket which has since become a symbol of back-nine bravery. And when donning the Kelly green next Sunday evening, this year's winner will experience the priceless glow of having conquered both himself and the most notorious stretch in Major golf.

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