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Europe Seeking First Masters Win This Century
Not so very long ago European golfers had what you might call a '"hold" on the Masters. Five wins in the 1980s and six in the '90s was a pretty good return considering how few of them were in the field - just four crossed the Atlantic in 1980 when Seve Ballesteros became the first European to be fitted for a green jacket, while there were still only 16 when Jose Maria Olazabal won his second title in 1999.
Besides the Spaniards, England's Nick Faldo has won three times, Germany's Bernhard Langer won twice, and there was one title each for Scotland's Sandy Lyle and Welshman Ian Woosnam.
After the success of the previous two decades, however, the Europeans relinquished the hold at the beginning of the new millennium. Indeed, Olazabal's two-shot win over Davis Love III 13 years ago remains the last time a European won at Augusta National (not counting Padraig Harrington's win in the Par 3 Contest in 2003 and '04 and Luke Donald's last year).
Since the turn of the century, Tiger Woods (2001, '02, '05), Phil Mickelson ('04, '6, and '10), and Zach Johnson (2007) have won seven titles for the USA, while Vijay Singh (2000), Mike Weir (2003), Trevor Immelman (2008), Angel Cabrera (2009) and Charl Schwartzel (2011) have claimed five for the "internationals."
And not only have they failed to win, only one European has managed to finish runner-up since 2000 - Lee Westwood in 2010. Last year, just one finished in the top 10 - Donald, who was part of a three-way tie for fourth with Woods and Geoff Ogilvy. In 2010 Westwood and Ian Poulter, who tied for 10th, were the only two, and the year before that not a single Euro was among the top-10 players.
European pundits have been saying it for years now, but surely the run of these frankly terrible results must end soon. Nearly a third of this year's field - 31 out of 96 (Dustin Johnson withdrew on Tuesday) - hails from across the Pond. And while a handful of their number - Lyle, Woosnam, Olazabal, Langer - have virtually no chance of winning, and a few more - Henrik Stenson, Paul Lawrie, Gonzalo Fernandez-Costano, Simon Dyson, Ross Fisher - are very unlikely winners, there is a good dozen or more that seem perfectly capable of following in the footsteps of the past European masters.
And at least four of them are high enough up the world rankings and in sufficiently good form to feel legitimately disappointed if they leave Augusta on Sunday night in the same jacket they arrived in.
Justin Rose, currently ninth in the world rankings, is now a world champion (admittedly, in a fairly loose sense) and a four-time winner on the PGA Tour. His victory by a shot over Bubba Watson and two over a certain young Irishman at the WGC Cadillac Championship at Doral three weeks ago followed a tie for fifth at PGA National and came a week before a final-round 66 in Tampa. At Bay Hill at the end of March, he started brightly with two 69s but dropped into a tie for 15th after disappointing rounds of 74 and 73 on the weekend.
The 31-year-old Englishman made the cut in his Augusta debut in 2003 and has played five more times since then, making it to the weekend every year. His best finish came in 2007 when he tied for fifth, three shots behind Johnson.
But while the cuts-to-appearances ratio is pretty good, Rose's weekend performances may give his fans some cause for concern. His third-round scoring average is 73.67, his fourth-round figure 72.67. And though he finished in the top five in '07, he actually began the final round tied for second one shot out of the lead. In 2004, the two-stroke lead he began the day with had become a nine-shot deficit by the end of the day following an 81.
No doubt, Rose succumbed to Augusta's spotlight - probably the most blinding in the game - on both occasions. But they both happened long before he broke his PGA Tour duck with a win at the 2010 Memorial. It's significant that Rose's PGA Tour wins have not come during the Fall Series or at similarly low-key events, but at a WGC tournament, a FedEx Cup Playoff, and prestigious tour stops hosted by Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus.
Rose may not be part of the game's elite just yet; he'll need a major or two before that can happen. But the man who began his professional career with 21 straight missed cuts is now a very accomplished, not to say stylish, player.
Equally stylish, even more accomplished and just a little more English (he was at least born there, unlike Rose who was born in South Africa) is Luke Donald, the man who arrives at Augusta National ranked as the planet's best player. After a couple of surprisingly poor tournaments to start the 2012 season, the world seemed ready to write Donald off, saying his moment of glory at No. 1 would be short-lived and that he would soon be overwhelmed by a certain young Irishman. But Donald answered with a tie for sixth at Doral and his fifth PGA Tour victory when he shot a closing 66 in Tampa, then won a four-man playoff with a birdie on the first extra hole.
Donald has now been the No. 1 player in the world for 43 of the past 45 weeks, meaning he has held the top spot for longer than Langer, Ernie Els, David Duval, Fred Couples or Singh ever did. His Masters record is patchy, but does include two top-five finishes - in 2005 when he tied for third and last year when he holed a birdie chip on the 72nd hole to tie for fourth, four shots behind Schwartzel.
On paper, Donald doesn't bring nearly enough firepower to Augusta to make a serious challenge. He is 185th in total driving on this year's PGA Tour and 120th in greens in regulation. But when you chip (second in scrambling), putt (first in strokes gained) and explode from sand (17th in sand saves) like he does, a rather meager 273-yard driving average tends not to be too great a factor. And it's not as if he is intimidated by long courses. In 2006, he won the Honda Classic on the 7,416-yard Country Club at Mirasol in Palm Beach Gardens, and the 7,340-yard Copperhead Course at Innisbrook, where he won the Transitions Championship two weeks ago.
Donald is a study in how to score, invariably signing for as low a number as his talent will allow. He needs a major for full acceptance perhaps, but no one - no one with a grain of sense anyway - would deny he is ready and able to raise his own bar.
Lee Westwood needs a major too if he is ever to be considered among the modern era's elite players. This Englishman compiled 22 weeks at No. 1 between October 2010 and May 2011 and has a total of 35 international victories as a professional, including two in America. So far his year he has finished in the top 10 three times - in Dubai, at the Honda Classic where he shot a final-round 63, and the WGC Accenture Matchplay in Arizona, where he lost a tense semifinal encounter to a certain young Irishman.
In 2010, after Westwood completed the first three rounds at Augusta in 12-under 204, CBS's Bill Macatee rather comically asked him if he was now ready to win a major. The fact was Westwood had been ready to win a major for a decade or more, and he came in second the following day not because of any errors on his part but because of playing partner Phil Mickelson's brilliant 5-under 67. Last year, the 38-year-old finished tied for 11th at 5-under 283, and last week he tied for 21st in Houston at 7-under 281.
Westwood hasn't been part of the conversation yet so far this year. But at second in greens in regulation on the PGA Tour and 135th in putting, it's pretty clear he is really only a good putting week away from that elusive first major.
To win though, Westwood, Donald, and Rose will likely have to beat a certain young Irishman named Rory McIlroy. Last year, McIlroy came to the 64th hole with a one-shot lead but hooked his tee shot so viciously it ended up in a part of the property television cameras had a hard time getting to. He made triple-bogey, then bogeyed the 11th and four-putted the 12th green for a double. He then made a six at the 15th, eventually arriving home with a 7-over 43.
McIlroy was distraught and the golf world wondered if the experience might scar him for life. As it turned out, it only made him stronger and more determined than ever. And he learned from his mistakes, taking the very next major, the U.S. Open at Congressional CC in Bethesda, Md., in record fashion. With a brilliant four-round total of 16-under 268, he not only exorcized his Masters demons, McIlroy became the youngest winner of the U.S. Open since Bobby Jones in 1923 and smashed Woods' Open scoring record by four strokes (in relation to par).
McIlroy climbed to No. 1 in the world - taking the spot where many believe he'll spend much of his career - after winning the Honda Classic in the first week of March. There, hounded by a final-round 62 by Woods, McIlroy played beautifully controlled golf down the stretch to record his third PGA Tour victory.
Other Europeans hopeful of taking the jacket back east include Martin Kaymer, Paul Casey, Graeme McDowell, Harrington, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Sergio Garcia. The highest-ranked among them is Kaymer but, aside from a water-skipping hole-in-one at the 16th on Monday of the 2012 Masters, his record at Augusta is absolutely abysmal: four MCs in four starts.
Harrington has three top 10s from 12 appearances and seemed to find something at Innisbrook where he carded an incredible opening 61, but his game seems far too inconsistent to mount a sustained challenge. Casey's results since returning from injury give little indication he is about to become a major champion, and McDowell had a bad weekend in Houston, shooting a 77 last Sunday in the final round.
Garcia hasn't done enough yet in 2012 to attract much attention, and though Jimenez will attract attention wherever he plays, he too is short of convincing form.
It has been too long since Europe produced a Masters champion. This year, three battle-hardened Englishmen are well set to emulate their great hero Nick Faldo. But the continent's hopes rest squarely on the shoulders of a certain young Irishman.
Can Rory McIlroy finish the job this year?
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.