For all the marketing and hype of the past three months, the first golf of 1999 that actually matters - the first major championship - starts on Thursday with the 63rd playing of the Masters Tournament at Augusta National.
What is a major? In 1930, Bobby Jones, the founder of both the Masters and the club that hosts the championship, won both Opens and Amateur titles in America and Britain, the so-called Impregnable Quadrilateral. When professional golf had taken hold in the 1960s, it was Arnold Palmer who first talked about winning the Grand Slam of majors: the Masters, the US and British Opens and the USPGA.
The recent Players' Championship was a mighty tournament, won impressively by David Duval. It could be described as a combination of all four majors: it had the hard and fast greens of the Masters, the five-inch rough of the US Open, breezes straight from the British Open and the strength of field usually only achieved by the USPGA. And yet the event will always have to bear Sandy Lyle's put-down when he won the Players' in 1987 and was asked how it differed from the Open: "About 115 years of history," he replied.
Duval and Lee Westwood have become the dominant winners of tour golf. In the past 18 months, both have won 10 times. Westwood has done so on five tours and four continents, while Duval has captured all the main titles on the US tour: the season-opening Tournament of Champions, the World Series, for winners from all around the globe, the season-ending Tour Championship, and now the Players'.
What both now crave is a major title. Duval has played in 17 majors, missed three cuts and had two top-10 finishes. Just once has he been in contention, leading by one with three to play at last year's Masters before Mark O'Meara birdied three of the last four holes to win his first major at the age of 41. Westwood has played in 10 majors, missed two cuts and also had two top-10 finishes.
This will only be the third season in which 25-year-old from Worksop has been eligible for all four majors. "I think that's why I haven't done so well in the majors," he said, "because I haven't had the experience of them." There is another factor. "I've probably taken the wrong attitude into them. I didn't see myself as a serious contender for them. I went in with the attitude that a top-10 finish would be good.
"Even last year, when I was going into them as the bookie's favourite, in my own mind I was only going into them to play well and see how high I could get, instead of seeing if I could win, like I do at other tournaments. It's just a mental attitude. I probably gave others too much respect, really. Now, I feel I am ready to compete."
Many of Westwood's finest displays have been achieved by battling through difficult conditions, working his way up the leaderboard by playing par golf while others are going backwards. That was the case at the US Open last year, where he achieved his best finish of seventh in a major, and at the Players' Championship in the past two years.
Often he has had to scramble back from a poor start. In all the eight majors over the past two years, Westwood has been over par in the first round. His best fightback came on his debut at Augusta two years ago, when after an opening 77, he shot a 70 on the last day in the company of Jack Nicklaus to earn a top-24 finish and a return trip.
Last year he fell to 44th, having had a hectic week. The attention was on him for the first time in the States as he had just won the New Orleans Classic. He would also win the Loch Lomond Invitational just before the Open and finished well down the pack at Royal Birkdale.
Preparation for a major is key and it is no coincidence that Nicklaus and Nick Faldo have got it right more often than not. This year Westwood is adopting a more low-profile build up. After practising at Sawgrass last Monday, he met up with his new wife Laurae in the Bahamas. On the agenda were a couple of rounds of golf but otherwise switching off.
Yesterday, he arrived in Augusta but will play no more than a couple of practice rounds. "In the past I have overdone the practice before a major, working far harder than at a regular tournament," he said.
All Westwood's arrangements are decided by his manager, Andrew "Chubby" Chandler, who described himself as the "chairman of the board". Input on the "board" comes from the player himself, his coach, Pete Cowen, and his father, a retired maths teacher.
It was decided Cowen, who also works Chandler's other clients such as Darren Clarke, Andrew Coltart and David Howell, should give more instruction at home and not travel to so many tournaments. The idea was to reduce the number of technical ideas circulating in the players' minds during an event. But when Westwood was struggling prior to the Players' Championship, Butch Harmon, Tiger Woods' coach, was prevailed upon to help, and it seemed to work.
One aspect Westwood has been persuaded to drop is his attempts to draw the ball as folklore demands at Augusta. But Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Faldo, Fred Couples and Woods are all Masters champions who fade the ball. "The perception of Augusta as a hooker's paradise is wrong," said Johnny Miller, the former US and British Open champion.
"A slight hook with the tee shot may be a plus but it isn't as big a factor as it used to be because of the distance these guys hit the ball. A monster fade that goes 300 yards won't hurt you and is even an advantage on clutch holes like 18.
"The real keys to playing well at Augusta are the approach shots to those firm, tricky greens. You need to hit the ball high so it lands like a sack of sand. A high fade works much better than a draw."
Duval, who as the new world No 1, enters the Masters as a surprise favourite over Woods, also hits the ball left-to-right. Westwood is glad to be away from the hype. But after describing the Open last year as "just another tournament" and entering the USPGA having barely touched a club for two weeks, Westwood has re-evaluated the significance of the majors.
"I want to play well in the majors, because when I sit down in 40 years' time, that is the way great players are measured. People talk of Faldo and you only hear of his six majors. Maybe, I could win them all. It's possible; I think I've got the kind of game that's right for all of them. I would say the US Open particularly suits me and, certainly the British Open is the one I'd like to win most, but I have the game to win all of them."
Lee Westwood and David Duval: two success Stories
In the past 18 months, Lee Westwood (left) and David Duval have become the dominant winners in golf with a combined tally of 20 victories. In their careers, Duval has won 10 times in America, while Westwood has 13 victories on five tours around the world.
Westwood: Scandinavian Masters
Westwood: Taiheiyo Masters (Japan)
Westwood: Malaysian Open
Duval: Michelob Championship
Duval: US Tour Championship
Westwood: Volvo Masters (Sp),
Duval: Tucson Open
Westwood: Freeport McDermott Classic (US)
Duval: Houston Open
Westwood: Deutsche Bank Open English Open
Westwood: Loch Lomond Invitational
Duval: World Series
Westwood: Belgacom Open
Duval: Michelob Championship
Westwood: Taiheiyo Masters
Duval: Mercedes Championship,
Bob Hope Classic
Duval: The Players' ChampionshipReuse content