Tartan hero ready to put on a Green Jacket

Scotland's Laird out to emulate Zoeller as first-time winner at Augusta
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The Independent Online

Rather appropriately for the man who has just breathed life into the creeping corpse that was professional Scottish golf, Martin Laird does not accept the notion that as an Augusta debutant his Masters challenge is terminally destined to be pushing up the azaleas.

Why not do a Fuzzy Zoeller and become the first first-timer to don the Green Jacket in 32 years? After all, last Sunday he did a Sandy Lyle, by winning his second event on the PGA Tour after decades of Tartan failure in the United States. Seven days on from having his hand clasped by Arnold Palmer at the back of Bay Hill's 18th green, the 28-year-old is still trying to take it all in. The reaction, as he says in an accent part-Taggart, part-Miami Vice, has been "a wee bit awesome".

"I had so many messages from family, friends, from people from home I hadn't heard from in years," he said. "The phone didn't stop until Wednesday. Although there were some very special ones, nothing topped meeting Mr Palmer like that. It was the first time I'd ever spoken to him. It can't get much better."

Well, it could. If he thinks the Scottish public have taken him to their heart, he should see what would happen if he collected their first American major in 23 years. In fact, suddenly this son of Glasgow would be British. Andy Murray might best advise how it all works.

"I know what they say about Masters debutants, but the way I'm playing I wouldn't want to write myself off," said Laird. "It'll be tough, the history books show that. But the way I've been playing and the way I've been putting especially, I can't see any reason why I won't be there or thereabouts on Sunday."

Laird arrives in Augusta today, although he played there a few weeks ago. He was gobsmacked, as all Augusta virgins are, but more by the beauty than the severity. "The strengths of my game do fit the course," said this big-hitter with the high ball-flight. "I acknowledge that with those slopes on the greens you need to know where to come in from. I had a local caddie and there were a couple of instances when I'd chip up and he would laugh. 'You want to be 20 feet left of where you aimed,' he'd say. There's so many little tricks, you need the knowledge. HopefullySandy will assist me on that score."

Laird has arranged to play a practice round with Lyle tomorrow. "It'll be a crash course in Augusta," said Laird. "I've got to know Sandy prettywell over the years. We have the same management company. He's a great guy." He is not nearly so close to the other Britons teeing it up in Georgia. Indeed, he is part of the "Brit Pack" tap-dancing all over the rankings in nationality only. "I wouldn't say I'm good friends with any of them," he said. "Justin Rose is the one I know best. I don't really know Paul Casey, Luke Donald and the others. I will say hello and have a quick chat, but that's it. That does not mean I haven't been inspired by all those Europeans winning in the US. I have. It's been extra motivation."

If his plan works, Laird will join the gang. "One of my top priorities is to make next year's Ryder Cup team and if that means joining the European Tour and playing more events over there I will," said Laird. "If I maintain this form I will have a great chance."

He would be a certainty. Laird went into Bay Hill on the back of two top-fives in his previous four events and now stands on the brink of the world's top 20. Yet that isn't the stat affording most satisfaction. He is also in the top 20 in the Tour putting stats. "I actually burst out laughing the other day when someone described me as 'one of the best putters on Tour'," he said. "Last year, I was one of the worst. I started working with Dave Stockton Jnr last year and he told me to stop being so mechanical. I've always been a feel player with my long game and have finally realised that's what I need with my putting, too."

It has been some journey of discovery, which began when as a 17-year-old he told his parents he fancied US college. "It was all my idea," said Laird. "I'd always been more interested in watching the PGA Tour on Sky rather than the European Tour. It was on every Sunday evening and Dad and I would be fixed to it. I figured why not try when the chance came at Colorado State University.

"Saying that, the first six months were tough. I'd be lying if I said I did not lie there thinking how much I missed my family, friends and Scotland itself. But I never got that homesick where I considered going back. The thing is, I didn't plan ahead. I did not know that after college I'd stay here, try to work my way through up the Tours. It just happened. The way I see it, it was probably tougher for my Mum and Dad. But they're very proud and are coming over to the Masters. It's as big for them as me."

As it is for his country. "It's funny, but the way golf in Scotland is now to the way it was in 2000 when I moved I'm not sure if I'd have taken the same route," said Laird, who played for all the age-group teams, including the Scottish seniors. "Now there are programmes to bridge that gap between amateur and professional golf. I know Scotland haven't had a player up in the rankings for some time and there might be a responsibility to carry the hopes. But I can't think of that, I just have to carry on the way I've been playing."

Anything and everything would be possible, then. Even the supposedly impossible at Augusta.

Four to follow

The Englishman Luke Donald (28-1)

The theory goes that Mr Plod, as they called him before he tore through the World Match Play field, doesn't hit the ball far enough. He probably doesn't. But he has a short game like God's more accomplished foursomes partner and that can compensate. Finished third on debut in 2005.

The American Nick Watney (18-1)

He is not the most interesting of the new batch of Americans (indeed, next to Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler he is beige bland) but he's the one most likely to prevail. The year's form player as he won at Doral and started the season with three consecutive top-six placings. Seventh last year.

The kid Rory McIlroy (30-1)

Whispers from his camp describe the Ulsterman as in ominous form, with his putter at last nearing peak performance. Rors is roaring to go after a three-week break. Has the game and now has the experience. McIlroy must win a Green Jacket. The only question is "sooner or later"?

The outsider Robert Karlsson (100-1)

One day the lanky Swede will click in an American major and when he does the odds will look absurd. Has it all for The Masters, the former European No 1 just needs a going week. Finished eighth at Augusta three years ago and has shown patches of form this year. No 100-1 shot.

James Corrigan