Golf / US Masters: Olazabal finds the drive to make his pitch: Familiarity breeds content for champion Langer and fellow Europeans for the Masters which begins today

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The Independent Online
THE Stars and Stripes was far more familiar last year than the European Community colours, but one of the few occasions it did not appear above the flagstick at the 18th was here 12 months ago. Bernhard Langer won the Masters at Augusta National, thus maintaining a rich European tradition. There is a very strong case to be argued this week for a further chapter on un-American activity.

'Top Americans, eh?' Nick Faldo said. 'Well, all the obvious names. . . I'm trying to think.' The bookmakers have put their thinking caps on and have come up with, under the heading of winning nationality, 4-6 American, 7-2 European, 5-1 Australian and 7-1 the Rest of the World. Americans may display bumper stickers on their cars reading 'Old Glory, New Pride' but when they turn right into Magnolia Drive this morning, opposite the Fred Astaire dance studios, the odds and the Gods are against them. In the general betting list Greg Norman is the 6-1 favourite, followed by Faldo at 9-1, Langer and Nick Price at 10-1 and Jose-Maria Olazabal at 14-1. That's Australia, England, Germany, Zimbabwe and Spain. The first hint of America appears at 20-1 in the unconvincing guise of Davis Love III and Corey Pavin.

On form, Norman is the natural selection. In January and February, despite displaying all the symptoms of an infirm parrot, he finished second, to Ernie Els, in the Desert Classic in Dubai and the following week emerged from his sick- bed to win the Johnnie Walker Classic in Phuket. He shot 75 in the first round and had he not had a late tee time he would have withdrawn. Then he scored 70, 64, 68.

At Doral he was joint seventh, at Bay Hill joint sixth and in his last appearance in The Players' Championship he won with a record-smashing score of 264. 'There's no question about it. . . ' Norman said, apropos of nothing. In the space of half an hour he repeated that phrase 22 times. When Norman enters the equation there are always question marks.

Since concentrating more on golf than business, a process accelerated by his departure from the International Management Group, Norman's career has gone into overdrive. He was brilliant in the Open last summer and very nearly won the US PGA. On both occasions he got the better of Faldo.

Norman's major collection comprises two Opens and he has been measured for the Green Jacket on several occasions but every time he began rehearsing his victory speech he had his collar felt. In 1986, Norman cracked going down the 18th where he hit his ball into the stands. In 1987 the blonde hair almost turned white when Larry Mize chipped in from 140 feet at the second play-off hole, the 11th. In 1989 Faldo won a play-off at the 11th: Norman was third.

In the locker room they say things like 'Greg's owed a Masters.' The Masters, though, doesn't listen. Norman may be the favourite but favouritism doesn't necessarily fit the Green Jacket. Price was in Norman's shoes 12 months ago having dominated everything and look what happened to him. He missed the cut. The onus of expectancy on Norman is perhaps too great and in a tournament of Grand National proportions 6-1 is no price.

Price, on the other hand, will probably have a stronger tilt at it this time - he holds the course record of 63 - but I cannot oppose the market in tipping Faldo, Langer and Olazabal in giving you a decent run for your money. Faldo is the only player, Nicklaus apart, to win this thing back-to-back. He is in good heart even though he has done next to nothing so far this year and in the process has lost his world No 1 ranking to Norman. From Faldo's mood I suspect that the perfectionist has found something that he had lost.

One of the reasons why the Europeans have a green wardrobe is that the Masters, alone of the four majors, is a permanent resident of one course, and they have become intimately familiar with all her idiosyncrasies. Before Ian Woosnam won here in 1991 (from Olazabal) he prepared by putting on a snooker table. The speed of the greens is one of Augusta's few natural defences and Langer is one of the best putters in the business.

He has survived three attacks of the 'yips' and his style of putting is ideally suited to Augusta. Players who attack the hole will invariably suffer on these greens and Langer is not of that ilk. He is gradually changing his swing under the guidance of David Leadbetter and it has not prevented him from being a major contender every time he tees it up.

If Langer is expected to mount a strong defence he could be joined on the leaderboard by Olazabal. It has taken the 28-year-old a long time to recover from his loss to Woosnam here but in the last month or so he finally appears to have laid the bogey to rest. He is the leader of the European Tour's Order of Merit and followed his victory in the Mediterranean Open by coming second to Ben Crenshaw in New Orleans last Sunday.

They've had trouble fitting Olazabal's name onto the manual scoreboard here but they finally squeezed it in. They may have to do so again over the next four days. What has lifted the dark cloud from his horizon is the fact that he is driving the ball far more accurately. The cover on his club may say Maruman, the Japanese company he is contracted to, but the black-shafted metal driver that has raised his spirits is a product of the American company, Taylor Made.

Paella could be on the menu at the champion's dinner next year. What the Green Jackets are dreading is the prospect of a victory by John Daly. With Big Macs all round there would be no need of the silver service.

----------------------------------------------------------------- US MASTERS ROLL OF HONOUR ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1993 . . . . . . . Bernhard Langer (Ger) 1992 . . . . . . . Fred Couples (US) 1991 . . . . . . . Ian Woosnam (GB) 1990 . . . . . . . Nick Faldo (GB) 1989 . . . . . . . Nick Faldo (GB) 1988 . . . . . . . Sandy Lyle (GB) 1987 . . . . . . . Larry Mize (US) 1986 . . . . . . . Jack Nicklaus (US) 1985 . . . . . . . Bernhard Langer (Ger) 1984 . . . . . . . Ben Crenshaw (US) 1983 . . . . . . . Severiano Ballesteros (Sp) 1982 . . . . . . . Craig Stadler (US) 1981 . . . . . . . Tom Watson (US) 1980 . . . . . . . Severiano Ballesteros (Sp) -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

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