Masters preview: Dougherty flies west with the goose, primed to fulfil his American dream

Briton ascends to 'heaven' with a little help from Fuzzy and a compatriot who won three Masters. By James Corrigan

Here is how it goes for the Masters first-timer. Arrive on Sunday, spend four days of practice walking around in a trance, whispering things like: "This is where Tiger holed his chip from, right here" to your caddy. On Thursday, tee it up in the first round. Make a few birdies, get all excited. Make a few double bogeys, the odd treble, the even odder quintuple, get all downhearted. On Friday evening, reluctantly hand in your player's pass and desperately look over your shoulder as security ushers you through the gates.

You are never heard of again. A green jacket? A straitjacket, more likely. "No sir, they're not azaleas, they're the geraniums your mother brought in. Sit up straight, it's time for your pills."

Nick Dougherty is fairly confident the above scenario will not befall him this week, and not just because the Englishman has the talent to ensure he would survive the horror even if Magnolia Drive did turn all Elm Street. The 25-year-old had what he labels "the ideal preparation". But it does help if your mentor has won three Masters.

"Yeah, I had dinner with Nick last night," said Dougherty. "Nick" is Faldo, who first spotted the boy from Bootle and put him on the path to Georgia via his celebrated Junior Series. "He was great, very helpful. We talked about different shots to use around the greens and secret ways to check what that swirling wind is really doing. We went through each individual hole, looking at where the flags are going to be, the right places to hit it and where you can't afford to miss. He pointed out a couple of things it would probably have taken me years to realise. It makes me believe I've prepared really, really well. That and the four days I've just had there."

Dougherty credits the first of these as being "one of the most enjoyable days of my golfing career". But then he had always expected it to be. For years he turned down offers from friendly Augusta members to try their pride and joy. "I was tempted, many times, but always told myself I would never play there until I had earned the right, until I had qualified for the Masters," he said. "It's the only course I ever dreamed of playing as a kid that not only lived up to expectations, but surpassed them."

His Augusta love affair started, as most in Britain do, on a chilly Sunday night in his living room. "It was a Dougherty family tradition; not only to watch it live together but to buy the VHS and see it time and time again," he recalled. "It's funny, because I said to Nick last night, 'My first Masters memory is watching you win in 1989'. Nick said, 'That's great'. But then I said, 'Yeah, but it wasn't you winning the Masters, was it? It was Scott Hoch losing it by missing that little tiddler on the 10th [the first play-off hole].' Sorry Nick, I think you're incredible, but that's what I'll always remember. I actually thought about it on my first round there the other day."

It had been a timid, knee-shaking Dougherty who walked into the Augusta National that morning, hardly resembling the young heart-throb who has cut such a dash across European fairways. "I'm telling you, I've never been so nervous going into a clubhouse. You just don't want to do the wrong thing or say the wrong thing. Well, there were all the green jackets, and a waiter came over and asked, 'Would you care for some breakfast?' I squeaked, 'Yes please'.

There was then this embarrassed silence. 'Well, what could I get for you?' he eventually asked. 'I don't know, you haven't shown me a menu yet,' I said. That's when he said, 'Sir, this is Augusta. You say what you want, the chef cooks it for you'. I haven't even been in a restaurant that does that. If anything told me about the class of the place, that did. That and what I found out on the course."

After the eggs Benedict – "Well, I didn't fancy saying, 'Two sloppy eggs on toast,' did I?" – he had a first hole that even he did not envisage. "I almost eagled the first, lipped out with my approach shot. It was magical. I decided that first day to just play Augusta like I always wanted to play Augusta. Go for the par fives in two, go for everything. I didn't care how many times I hit it in the pond. I just soaked it up. I got down to the serious work the next day."

It took him four hours to play the front nine, four on the back nine. "That was playing with one ball, on my own. I had to let six groups of members' fourballs through. A bit embarrassing, but I was determined to get to know the course and the greens inside out. I don't profess to be an Augusta expert, but at least I've got rid of the wow factor. That's one of the things that stops guys winning it on the first year. The lack of experiencing it. It is unique."

There has been only one first-time winner. He interrupts just as you are about to mention his name. "It's 'The Fuzz' [Fuzzy Zoeller] in 1979. Like him, I need to be 'the loosest goose in the west'. I worked with Dr Bob [Rotella, his sports psychologist] last week and he said it's no coincidence Fuzzy is the only debutant to win it. To keep yourself 'as loose as a goose' is vital. Shots you think will finish six feet away suddenly end up 60 feet away. That takes a lot of accepting and a lot of laughing off. Fuzzy was the right man to do it. I hope I'm the right man to repeat it."

His achievement in finishing seventh at last year's US Open gave him the confidence to suspect he just might be. Playing with Woods on the Saturday, he had an insight into what it might take to beat the unbeatable. "It was described as Tiger's best round of the year and his ball-striking was amazing," he said. "But there on the 14th green I had an opportunity to close within one, and though I wasn't playing that good I thought, 'Hey, it's actually a possibility I could beat him today'. I didn't, but it still gave me the self-belief that I could compete when the opportunity comes around again.

"It's like next week. OK, Tiger's the favourite and I wouldn't bet against him. But Geoff [Ogilvy] proved the other week that guys can beat him. Some pros seem to give him superhuman status. All that talk about Tiger winning every tournament he enters in 2008 was just ridiculous. Golf's not like that, even though he is playing incredible. Just imagine how huge a thing it would be to be the man who beat Tiger. It's like beating God at the moment."

And if you are going to beat God anywhere, it may as well be at the place golfers describeas "heaven".

Life and times

Born: 24 May 1982, Liverpool.

Vital stats: 6ft 1in, 13st 4lb.

Home club: Shaw Hill, Lancashire.

Early doors: Faldo Junior Series winner 1997; World Junior champion '99. Turned pro 2001; Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year '01; part of winning GB and Ireland team, Walker Cup '02.

Titles: Caltex Masters, Singapore '05, Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, St Andrews '07.

And another thing: tied for 7th place at US Open last year at Oakmont, having led first round with a two-under-par 68.

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