Masters test a study in concentration
McIlroy will need keen focus if he is to end Europeans' poor recent record at Augusta
Augusta National seemed to have difficulty 36 years ago in adjusting to the idea of a European as their Masters champion. And given that they haven't had to consider such a happening since 1999, they may feel the need to refresh their role as all-embracing hosts, when the 80th staging of golf's rite of spring gets underway on Thursday.
As interviews go, the formal acknowledgement of the 1980 Masters winner, was of the cringe-inducing variety. "Seve, let me ask you . . . a lot of people have asked me . . . how tall are you?" "Six foot," replied Ballesteros.
"Even six foot?" repeated Hord Hardin, the chairman of Augusta National. "Yes," said the young Spaniard, somewhat bemused. The scene was the Butler Cabin where, in his notoriously stilted way, Hardin was attempting to inform the world about their exciting new champion from Europe.
Mind you, he was entitled to be surprised at the outcome, given that only three other Europeans took part on that occasion. Sandy Lyle finished 48th and fellow Britons, Mark James and amateur Peter McEvoy, both missed the cut.
Things are very different this week, with no fewer than 24 European professional challengers, including Ireland's Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke. And they are augmented by Romain Langasque of France, the reigning British Amateur champion.
This happens to be the silver jubilee of a highly significant European triumph in 1991. That was when Ian Woosnam became the fifth among Europe's so-called Famous Five to capture the Masters, following Ballesteros (twice), Bernhard Langer, Lyle and Nick Faldo (twice), all in the space of 12 years.
The treacherous nature of the golf course, however, and the quality of the annual field, have created so much drama that anniversaries readily spring to mind. Like the thrill, 30 years ago, of a sixth Masters triumph by Jack Nicklaus, which is certain to command attention this week.
The universal appeal of that particular staging was brought home to me several years later during a chat with the renowned English caddie Dave Musgrove. Given that he had been at Lyle's side for an Open triumph at Royal St George's in 1985 and again for his 1988 Masters win, I was more than a little surprised at the event which, for him, stood apart from all others.
Without prompting, he said: "My greatest thrill in golf came in the 1986 US Masters when I caddied for Sandy," he said. "We were in the two-ball with Jack Nicklaus on the final day."
Warming to the memory, Musgrove went on: "Jack was always great company on a golf course, but that occasion was very special, for obvious reasons. I remember him telling us how nervous his son Jackie [the Bear's caddie] was as we negotiated those famous, final nine holes. And I remember the extraordinary excitement from the crowd as Jack kept making birdies."
Musgrove concluded: "Most of all, I remember the way he carefully took each shot as it came. Not once, even as we neared the finish, did I hear him mention anything about winning."
It is widely acknowledged that Nicklaus captured that particular title largely because of the disastrous play of the 15th hole by Ballesteros, who might have enhanced European dominance. "That one shot stopped me from being an even better player," the Spaniard later claimed, when referring to a four-iron approach which he smothered into the water, in attempting to fade it onto the 15th green. Coinciding with a birdie from Nicklaus at the short 16th, it broke the Spaniard's spirit beyond repair.
Though Langer would win again in 1993, followed by Jose-Maria Olazabal (sadly, an absentee through illness this week) in 1994 and 1999 and Faldo for a third time in 1996, Europeans couldn't quite match the extraordinary dominance of those first dozen years. Yet the 1990s remained decidedly fruitful compared to what has happened since then.
Not a sign of a European winner in the last 16 years! The closest was Lee Westwood's second place in 2010 and the shared second places by the American-based Swede Jonas Blixt in 2014 and from Justin Rose last year. What's gone wrong?
The inescapable conclusion is that despite significantly increased numbers, the current European crop have yet to match the talent of the generation just past. They have been able to outgun the Americans at Ryder Cup level because of competitive steel and a greater aptitude for match-play. But the Masters demands different skills.
As Faldo put it: "There's a discipline you acquire from playing Augusta National. Like where to hit the ball and where not; when to make that par and walk." He added: "If your nerve is suspect, the feel goes from your hands. That can be a real problem around Augusta."
Westwood, a veteran of 16 Masters, made essentially the same points in a different way. "It's not a coincidence that you see the same names up there every year," he said. "It's not all about the fantastic shots you hit, but making sure you're not out of position too often. And limiting the bogeys."
All of which requires relentless concentration, at which Faldo has been probably the greatest exponent since the halcyon days of Nicklaus. Such was the Englishman's intensity, that he carried his general competitive approach even into practice rounds. As Tiger Woods discovered prior to the 1996 Masters, when he and Faldo played a practice round together.
Inevitably, it threw them into fairly close physical contact, particularly when they were hitting three balls to the more difficult greens. Yet, according to Woods: "He didn't say a word to me for the entire 18 holes." Absolutely nothing was said? Well, not quite. Woods conceded that "when we putted out on the last hole, Nick said, 'I enjoyed playing with you.'"
Which may seem rather extreme, but that's what it took to make Faldo a three-time Masters champion. And you have to think that this is the ingredient which has been missing from McIlroy's game in his seven Augusta challenges so far. It would be difficult to imagine a course more suited to his splendid skills, yet his best performances have been a share of eighth place in 2014 and tied fourth behind Jordan Spieth last year: his dramatic collapse in 2011 can be put down to inexperience.
By his own admission, McDowell's lack of length is a serious handicap around Augusta, though not an insurmountable one, as Zach Johnson proved in 2007. Lowry, on the other hand, demonstrated at Firestone that he has the power and finesse to handle a big course. Augusta will not permit him the sort of second-shot latitude, however, that he enjoyed in last August's memorable win.
This week's defending champion, Spieth, has been discovering of late that while great putting will cover a multitude of golfing sins, it has its limitations. Meanwhile, we're told that he has chosen Texas "Salt Lick Barbeque" as the main course for his champions' dinner on Tuesday evening: the week's dining commences with the amateur dinner tomorrow night which will be addressed by Portmarnock's Gavin Caldwell, captain of the Royal and Ancient.
As a pointer to Masters form, the WCG-Dell Match Play in Austin, Texas, was quite revealing, not least for the fact that Jason Day showed himself to be currently the best player in the world. Unfortunately for him, that doesn't guarantee Masters success, as his fellow Australian Greg Norman discovered to his cost.
As it happened, Norman's effective Masters swansong was on the occasion of the last European triumph. That was when an American scribe was the runaway winner of the most inane question posed after Sunday's finale. "Greg," he enquired, "can you describe the difference between the one [hug] today and the one you got in '96 [from Faldo]?" A bemused Shark eventually answered: "Well, Jose's a lot thinner."
Since then, this coveted prize has been won on ten occasions by Americans; twice by South Africans, Trevor Immelman and Charl Schwartzel; by a Fijian, Vijay Singh, Canadian Mike Weir, Argentina's Angel Cabrera and by Australia's Adam Scott. Not a green-jacketed European in sight!
Good news from the McIlroy camp is that he is clearly conscious of the need to improve his levels of concentration, which seems to be the only weakness in his game, now that he is putting successfully, left hand under. He expects the spotlight to be less intense for him than last year, given the attention being focused on Day as the current world number one, and on Spieth as the defending champion.
By way of emphasising a changed approach to his second bid for the Career Grand Slam, he has withdrawn from Wednesday's Par-Three competition, describing it as "a bit of a distraction." Last year, it will be recalled, Niall Horan of One Direction caddied for him.
McIlroy will arrive in Augusta this evening, and his plans for practice rounds tomorrow and Tuesday, followed by nine holes on Wednesday morning, will include England's Andy Sullivan and Matt Fitzpatrick as partners.
When Nicklaus was 26, the same age as his young Irish friend, he was asked what his goals were in the wake of a third Masters triumph in 1966. "My aim," he replied with cool assurance, "is to win more golf tournaments than anybody who ever lived. I want to be the greatest."
Which is the sort of focus McIlroy needs to apply to his every action this week.
Sunday Indo Sport