Friday 23 February 2018

Woods' Masters return leaves Seve pining for Augusta

Dermot Gilleece recalls how the Spaniard blazed a trail for Europe in the Masters

The frail figure speaking from Madrid last week could sense instinctively why Tiger Woods had chosen the US Masters for a return to action. "When I saw it, Augusta gave me a very familiar feeling," Seve Ballesteros once observed. "These were my trees, my colour of green."

That was in 1977, when the dashing Spaniard made his debut in the cathedral in the pines. And by capturing the title three years later, he became inspirational to all European Masters aspirants, right up to current challengers such as Pádraig Harrington.

Woods has enjoyed comparable comfort at Augusta since his first Masters in 1995. Indeed the following year, when still an amateur, he responded to a practice-round dare from Greg Norman that they should try a novel approach to the 435-yard ninth, by hitting their drives over magnolia trees onto the first fairway. From there, Woods reached the green with a sandwedge.

Twelve months on, he astonished the golfing world by sweeping to an unprecedented 12-stroke victory, breaking the aggregate record by one stroke. And he did it as a 21-year-old to become the youngest winner in Masters history, a distinction which had rested with Ballesteros for 17 years.

The Spaniard's affection for this place of remarkable beauty was heightened by the happy coincidence of his birthday on April 9 falling at Masters-time most years. It came on the final day in 1978 and on the eve of combat in 1980. And 30 years after that triumph, his 53rd birthday will fall on the Friday of next month's staging.

In the autumn of 1979, Ballesteros vowed to make 1980 his year for a Masters breakthrough. So prior to the World Matchplay at tree-lined Wentworth, he radically shortened his backswing in pursuit of greater control.

Then, at home in Pedrena for the winter, he would throw golf balls among the pine trees to practise recovery shots he might encounter at Augusta. And in the evenings, he would stand in front of a full-length mirror among the cows in the farmhouse stables, and re-shape his takeaway. As he later explained: "I wanted to see myself take the club back more in one piece."

He also acquired a 30-minute cassette of soothing messages from a Barcelona-based psychiatrist specialising in positive thought. Then there was the so-called 'Gravity Gym' machine, aimed at strengthening his suspect back.

Harrington's experience at Stackstown, where he was forced to develop an amazing short game because of the difficulty of hitting awkward greens as a teenager, would have been similarly rewarding as Augusta preparation. Woods, meanwhile, couldn't have found a venue more suited to his seriously long and high ball-flight, while being permitted considerable latitude off the tee.

As a bonus, there were practice rounds with some of Augusta's most successful campaigners. Like in 1995 when he studied every move of Nick Faldo. Indeed while the Englishman was marvelling at the youngster's "serious shoulder speed," Woods marked the 60th anniversary of Gene Sarazen's legendary albatross at the 15th with a 330-yard drive followed by no more than a nine-iron approach for an eagle-three.

Ballesteros would have noted such exploits at the time, while seeing first-hand the player's stunning potential when they, too, practised together. Prior to 1980, no European had challenged seriously for the Masters. But after his breakthrough, Ballesteros won again in 1983; was desperately unlucky when Jack Nicklaus triumphed in 1986 and was beaten by Larry Mize in a play-off in 1987.

"I dominated the Masters in the 1980s, and deserved to win it at least once more," he later claimed with justification, having been twice tied second along with third, fourth and fifth placings,

apart from his two victories. Biggest disappointment was the four-iron approach he smothered into the water on the 15th in 1986, when attempting to fade the ball onto the green. "That one shot stopped me from being an even better player," said the conquistador, whose spirit was broken as Nicklaus birdied the short 16th.

Yet his influence on European challengers remained huge. From the first of two wins by Bernhard Langer in 1985 until Jose-Maria Olazabal's second victory in 1999, five Europeans won the Masters on nine occasions, including three from Faldo and one each from Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam.

In 1996, Ballesteros made a Masters cut for the last time. Woods, meanwhile, had departed the scene on Friday after successive 75s in the company of Tom Watson. For all three, things would never be the same again.

With Faldo now in the TV tower for CBS, Woods faces a future very different from the innocent promise of 14 years ago. Still, the bookmakers believe he can land a fifth Augusta triumph. And the frail figure from Madrid agrees. "I think he has the ability to overcome all obstacles that are put in front of him," insists Ballesteros, clearly believing that the incomparable Augusta feeling will continue to perform its magic.

Sunday Independent

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