Three and easy for Phil
Harrington and McDowell idle spectators as business end of Augusta takes centre stage
INTENSITY, excitement, anticipation. All were palpable on the practice range at Augusta National yesterday as the leading men of the 2010 US Masters made their final preparations for the Sunday afternoon of the century.
On the surface, all was calm with Tiger Woods and KJ Choi, Phil Mickelson and Lee Westwood but behind each forced smile, mumbled greeting and cursory handshake, the nerves of every player out there was as taut as piano wire.
Except for two.
Having missed Friday's cut, the eyes of Padraig Harrington and Alvaro Quiros were set on far more distant horizons as they slammed ball-after-ball down the range yesterday.
Quiros might have wowed the patrons at Augusta with his raw power but with just one previous appearance at the Masters under his belt and an insatiable appetite for adventure, it came as no surprise when the tall Spaniard's tournament lasted no longer than 36 holes.
Harrington is different. The three-times Major champion was many people's fancy for a far more prominent at The Masters than the one he occupied yesterday, striking practice balls in blazing sunshine for a tiny audience of anoraks.
As two-by-two the Masters protagonists set out to meet their destiny, one could only wonder at the reasons why Harrington, dressed in an emerald and white hooped shirt which would have gone nicely with the Green Jacket, had been unable to take his place among them.
Sure, all three Irish missed the cut but Rory McIlroy came to The Masters hoping to find his 'A' game and Augusta National is probably the last place in the world you'd want to do that.
Instead, a few weaknesses in his iron play and lack of confidence in his putter were fully exposed, plunging the youngster even deeper into despair. At the age of 20, McIlroy is planning a complete break from the game to clear the "clutter" out of his head.
Meanwhile, question marks had begun to gather over Graeme McDowell's short game as he missed the weekend at Bay Hill last month and he left Augusta National grimly determined to sharpen-up his act around the green -- watch out for the dogged Portrush man when he does.
Yet Harrington's failure to rise to the challenge of Augusta left many sage members of the international media corps scratching their head.
If his performance the previous weekend in Houston had been ropey, Harrington seemed unconcerned as Masters week dawned and rarely have I found him so clear-headed or self-assured in the run-up to a Major.
Sadly, it was an illusion.
Harrington knew the week offered him a glorious opportunity. With the spotlight focused so firmly on Tiger, the Dubliner was given as good a chance as he has known in recent years to prepare for a Major championship in peace.
Golf's Major champions are expert in the art of positive thinking and, given the strength of their conviction, can be very persuasive, as Harrington was in assuring us that the setbacks he endured at Redstone, where he'd hit no fewer than eight balls into hazards, would have no effect on his confidence.
Yet Thursday's first round would reveal that Harrington's trust in his swing had been sorely dented in Texas.
After hitting the ball left in practice for the Houston Open, the Irishman had been pleasantly surprised to shoot 69 on his opening round and then delighted with the control control he had over his ball the following day.
Yet a double-bogey at 18 that afternoon would be followed by six more sixes at the weekend, sowing serious seeds of doubt which would germinate at Augusta.
"I wouldn't say that it surprised me," he mused after rounds of 74 and 75 had left him two beyond the cut mark at The Masters.
"I played like that last weekend, so it wasn't much of a surprise. If anything, I lost a bit of confidence in my game (in Houston) and when I didn't start very well here, that kind of showed up again. It wasn't a surprise, no.
"I did good work this week, sure I gave myself a chance but it just wasn't there."
Yet as one watched Harrington hit balls on the range at Augusta National yesterday, not far up the firing-line, Mickelson, Woods, Freddie Couples, to name but three, were preparing for yesterday's great adventure under the watchful eye of a swing guru.
Okay, Westwood's coach, Pete Cowen, hasn't been on hand at The Masters either.
Yet the Englishman has a low-maintenance swing and does not seem encumbered with Harrington's fascination with the technical side of the game and his almost insatiable desire to tinker.
For a couple of perfectly legitimate reasons, Harrington prefers not to bring his venerable coach, Bob Torrance, to the Majors, partly because he wants to keep his head as clear as possible of swing thoughts and partly because he does not want to subject the Scot, a man in his late 70s, to the rigours of Trans Atlantic travel.
If his motives are good, the inevitable result is not. For Harrington to turn up at the Masters without a coach capable of correcting any niggling problems with his swing is like Lewis Hamilton going to a Grand Prix without his mechanics.
Remember, Harrington ultimately was undone at The Masters by a glitch which had first appeared in practice more than a week earlier. As his mind coach, Dr Bob Rotella, is wont to say 'golf is not a game of perfect' and one cannot plan for every eventuality on the golf course.
Just how much golfers are in the hands of God on the course came at the second hole yesterday as Phil Mickelson struck a six-foot putt for birdie, only for a pine needle to fall on his line and deflect the ball wide of the cup -- even though the nearest tree was a good 50 yards away.
The good men of Augusta National rarely leave anything to chance and, invariably, recognise a good business opportunity when they see one.
It's not by coincidence, for example, that this year's US Masters turned out to be one of the most thrilling TV spectacles in golf history.
The return of Tiger Woods from his five-month hiatus ensured the biggest worldwide TV audience for a Major championship this century, so the Green Jackets, as Augusta club members are affectionately known, deliberately set out to entertain them.
They turned down the SubAir system; kept the greens receptive and set pins which the best golfers in the world could attack, letting birdies and eagles flow. It all made for excitement and plenty of noise, helping ensure that casual fans would stay tuned-in.
Indeed, the relatively simple set-up of the golf course last Thursday, when tees were pushed forward and 'easy' holes cut in anticipation of an incoming storm, actually helped ease Tiger back into tournament play after his five months hiatus.
It also went a long way towards ensuring the rusty World No 1 would garner the confidence necessary to contend.
Gifted Italian teenager Matteo Manassero, who turns 17 next week, underlined his superstar potential at Augusta by becoming the first amateur since Sergio Garcia in 1999 to make the weekend at The Masters ... and then outplayed the Spanish Ryder Cup star over the weekend.
While Manassero completed a final round 72 with a sweet birdie at the last and a top-40 placing on four-over, Garcia finished the tournament six shots further back after a dismal closing 78.
In his defence, Garcia's day got off to an upsetting start when he hit an elderly woman on the forehead with his second shot at the par-five second hole.
The woman managed to smile and say 'Thank you, Sergio' but she was covered in blood and medics said she'd require stitches.