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Europeans Well-Represented in 2009 Masters - Part 1
Is it time for a European winner to again don a green jacket this coming Sunday? It's been 10 years since a player from the Continent has won the Masters. Considering the green jacket was placed on a European's shoulders nine times between 1980 and 1994, and twice more before the turn of the 21st century, the recent barren period is hard to explain.
Actually, maybe not. Tiger Woods is obviously a large part of the reason for Europe's recent lack of success at Augusta National. And, despite record wins in the Ryder Cup in 2004 and '06, the continent's failure to produce champions of Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam's caliber must also be a factor.
This year, 24 golfers from across the Atlantic come seeking Georgia Glory, four of them ranked in the world's top 10. With Tiger Woods clearly back at his best, there's a strong chance Europe will have to wait another year. But there's definitely a potential winner listed below.
Here's Part 1 of my player-by-player analysis (in alphabetical order). Europe's other 12 players are analyzed in Part 2 (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_news/europeans_wellrepresented_in_2009_masters_part_2).
Ten years after teeing it up in Arizona State University colors and breaking numerous PAC-10 scoring records, the 31-year-old Englishman finally broke through on the PGA Tour last weekend with a win at the Shell Houston Open. A phenomenal ball-striker with nine European Tour victories and three Ryder Cup appearances behind him already, Casey has three top-11 finishes from his four appearances at Augusta. He most assuredly has the game to contend and perhaps now the confidence and momentum to go all the way to the Butler Cabin and have that cozy little chat with CBS's Jim Nantz and Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne.
World Ranking: 6; Masters Record: Four appearances, two top-10, one MC; Best Finish: T6 (2004); Prospects: Top-10.
This 31-year-old Englishman is still clawing his way back to top form following a six-month absence from the game in the second half of '08. The subluxation of the Extensor Carpi Ulnaris (ECU) tendon in his left wrist that caused his withdrawal from last year's U.S. Open bothered Donald again at the WGC World Matchplay event in Arizona last month, causing him to withdraw on the 18th tee of his third-round match against Ernie Els. The diagnosis from his surgeon, the same doctor that worked on Jim Furyk's wrist in 2004, was minor swelling, however, so Donald was back in time for the WGC CA Championship at Doral two weeks later where he tied for 20th. Like Casey, Donald has two top-10s in four Masters, but missed the cut last year.
World Ranking: 34; Masters Record: Four appearances, two top-10s, one MC; Best Finish: T3 (2005); Prospects: Top-25
Fisher surprised many, on the left side of the Atlantic at least, with his stellar performance at the WGC Matchplay Championship five weeks ago. There, he won the Sam Snead Bracket by defeating Robert Allenby, Pat Perez, Jim Furyk and Justin Leonard en route to the semifinals where he was beaten by Paul Casey. No one who saw him win last year's European Open at the London Club by seven shots over Sergio Garcia, or the '07 KLM Open in Holland the year before, or amass 19 top-10 finishes in Europe over the last three years, batted an eyelid. Another Englishman, 28 years old, Fisher is making his Masters debut and, though he won't be intimidated by Augusta's length, it will be interesting to see how he deals with the occasion.
World Ranking: 33; Masters Record: Debut; Best Finish: N/A; Prospects: Will make the cut.
My goodness, it's about time Sergio won the major he's shown promise for so long. Last year's victory at the Players Championship was a significant breakthrough as it left no doubt he can win against the best fields in the game, but the status of the four Grand Slam events is a notch or three higher still, and the 29-year-old Spaniard knows it. With every playoff defeat or second-place finish to Padraig Harrington, Garcia's demons increase their malevolent hold over him, and it will take exceptional mental fortitude for him to break his duck. Ideally, his Hogan-esque ball-striking will give him a 10-stroke lead after three rounds, and he'll be far enough ahead to minimize the power of that wicked inner voice. He will have forgotten his final-round 81 at the Shell Houston Open by the time he tees off Thursday, but forgetting his major near-misses and should-have-beens will be considerably more difficult.
World Ranking: 3; Masters Record: 10 appearances, two top-10s, four MCs including last two years; Best Finish: T4 (2004); Prospects: Your guess is absolutely as good as mine.
Despite a 0-2-1 record at last year's Ryder Cup, the quiet 35-year-old Dane showed he's a golfer of some class in 2008 with five top-10 finishes on the trot from August to October, and a total of 10 for the season. Two European Tour career wins, at the '02 Irish Open and '07 Mercedes-Benz Championship, suggest he can win on the big stage. But the lush green acres of Augusta National will surely prove too big a stage, especially for a player whose best finish in Europe so far this season is a tie for 11th. Missed the cut in his debut appearance last year.
World Ranking: 61; Masters Record: One appearance, one MC; Best Finish: MC; Prospects: Likely MC, but will know what to expect this year so should feel more at ease.
Three-time major champion will be attempting to capture the third leg of the Paddy Slam following impressive victories at Royal Birkdale (Open Championship) last July and Oakland Hills (PGA Championship) in August. Harrington has not made a distinguished start to 2009 with a best finish of T11 after seven starts in America and only one top-10 in four in Europe, but he's obviously one of the players to beat at Augusta after having developed the strategy and confidence to win the game's biggest events. Like Garcia, the 37-year-old Irishman won't let a fairly disappointing showing in Houston affect him. A fourth major will come only after a vast improvement on his '08 form, however.
World Ranking: 5; Masters Record: Nine appearances, three top-10s, two MCs; Best Finish: T5 (2002, '08); Prospects: Likely contender.
Miguel Angel Jiménez
The 45-year-old Spaniard has been a fixture in the majors since the turn of the century, but his best finish in a Grand Slam event remains a tie for second at the 2000 U.S. Open when he wound up 15 strokes behind the unstoppable Tiger Woods. The Spaniard has seven top-10 finishes from 40 starts in the majors, two of them coming last year (T8 Masters, T6 U.S. Open), but the closest he's got to the winner is four strokes - at the 2001 Open Championship and last year's U.S. Open. The three-time Ryder Cupper has won 15 times on the European Tour and shot the low round on Sunday at last year's tournament (68). His record at the Masters is certainly better than decent. But one doubts he has the firepower to win.
World Ranking: 30; Masters Record: Ten appearances, three top-10s, three MCs; Best Finish: T8 (2008); Prospects: Will make the cut.
The tall Swede is another star of the European Tour who hasn't quite done enough in America yet to justify top billing. A nine-time winner in Europe, Karlsson had his best season last year when he captured two victories, and finished atop the Order of Merit with an incredible eight top-three finishes and 12 top-10s from 24 events. Three of his four career top-10s at the majors came last year, too, so there's no doubt this 39-year-old is now part of the game's elite and perhaps ready for his first major. That said, one wonders how he'd fare playing Amen Corner on Sunday afternoon with a two-shot lead.
World Ranking: 9; Masters Record: Two appearances, one top-10; Best Finish: T8 (2008); Prospects: Certainly capable of a surprise but an unlikely winner. Top 25.
At only 24 Kaymer is already considered a star in Europe and, though he just missed out on a spot at last year's Ryder Cup, he will surely hold down a regular place on the European team at Celtic Manor next year. A two-time winner and the first German to win the Rookie of the Year Award on the European Tour (2007), Kaymer has shot a 59 in a professional tournament and qualified for the main tour after registering six top-three finishes in eight events on the European Challenge Tour in 2006. Kaymer clearly belongs, but his two wins last year came despite final rounds of 74 and 75, so perhaps he's vulnerable when in the hunt. He played in his first, second, third and fourth majors last year, with a best finish of T53 at the U.S. Open. Missed the cut at the Masters, but is but is very likely to become Germany's next major champion.
World Ranking: 20; Masters Record: One appearance, one MC; Best Finish: MC; Prospects: Solid top 25.
Jumped from 54th to 42nd in the world rankings two Sundays ago following an impressive win at the Open de Andalucía and, in doing so, earned his first invitation to the Masters. An 11-year veteran of the European Tour, the 33-year-old Dane will be playing his 11th major this week and looking for his first top-10. Has three wins in Europe, including last year's Volvo Masters, Europe's equivalent of the Tour Championship. A relatively short hitter who has averaged between 277 and 279 yards off the tee the last three years, Kjeldsen by no means possesses the ideal game for Augusta. The same was said about Zach Johnson and Mike Weir, but the possibility of Kjeldsen repeating either of their victories is remote, to say the very least.
World Ranking: 42; Masters Record: Debut; Best Finish: N/A; Prospects: Will do very well to make the cut.
The two-time Masters champion is now making hay on the Champions Tour, having banked well over $3 million in just 18 months. Still incredibly fit and focused, the German native weighs only 155 lbs but still averages over 280 yards off the tee. This will be his 27th Masters appearance, but he hasn't made the cut since 2005 when he came in tied for 20th. The previous year, at age 46, he finished T4, six shots behind Phil Mickelson. He has played six official events on this year's Champions Tour so far and finished in the top-10 in all of them. Indeed, he was in the top-three in the first three outings and won the opening event of the year in Hawaii. At 51, you'd think Langer was nothing more than a bit-part player, but don't let one of the game's toughest-ever competitors hear you say that.
World Ranking: 404; Masters Record: 26 appearances, eight top-10s, five MCs; Best Finish:1st (1985, 1993); Prospects: Making the cut will be a great achievement.
Unlike Langer, the 1988 champion Lyle probably wouldn't mind you referring to him as a bit-part player. Then again, he did make the cut in '07 and '08 albeit failing to break 300 on both occasions. Lyle's record at the Masters possesses the slightly dubious distinction of including not a single top-10 finish besides his glorious victory 21 years ago, when he picked his ball so cleanly off the sand in the fairway bunker at the 18th hole and made a birdie to beat Mark Calcavecchia by a stroke. Winner of the 1985 Open Championship, Lyle has won 29 times around the world, including six times on the PGA Tour. He is currently 13 months into an attempted comeback, having joined the Champions Tour in March '08. With an average drive of close to 294 yards, the 51-year-old Scot still has the power to do well. Sadly, the rest of his game hasn't kept up.
World Ranking: 949; Masters Record: 27 appearances, one top-10, 13 MCs; Best Finish: 1st (1988); Prospects: Not great. Unlikely to make the cut.
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 increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf 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. In 2009, Tony won first place for Editorial/Opinion in the ING Media Awards for Cybergolf. The article (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_newsa_euros_take_on_the_2008_ryder_cup_matches) that impressed the judges was the one about Europe's Ryder Cup team and Captain Nick Faldo's decision to pick Paul Casey and Ian Poulter rather than Darren Clarke.