The Masters: British hopefuls aim to pick their way past Tiger Woods
It is 17 years since Sir Nick Faldo last raised the flag of the Union at Augusta, 14 since a European triumph. There has been a Fijian, a Canadian, an Argentinian and a South African winner since Jose Maria Olazabal won the second of his green jackets in 1999, but those apart, golfers from the United States have turned the first major of the season into the parochial affair it always was before Severiano Ballesteros in 1980 ushered in a golden epoch for European golf.
Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam joined Seve, Faldo and Olazabal in the Masters outfitters, contributing a total of 11 wins in two decades. European golf used that foundation to develop a powerful international Tour and an unprecedented period of domination in the Ryder Cup, but without solving the paradox of the potless Masters.
Twice in the past three years Lee Westwood might have taken the green jacket. In 2010 he ran into an inspired Phil Mickelson, who was in the trees at 8, 9, 10, 11 and 13, yet conjured an answer each time, most famously the six-iron to four feet from a copse at the side of the 13th fairway. Last year Westwood finished tied third with Mickelson, two shots behind Bubba Watson. The jacket leaked away on the greens, at which he had by Saturday night taken 21 more putts than the lethal lefty.
Rory McIlroy started the final round of 2011 with a four-shot advantage before the trauma of the 10th and the ricocheted tee-shot triggered that pitiless traipse home. But regrouped spectacularly to win his first major at the US Open eight weeks later. McIlroy seems to specialise in the comeback. He collected his second major at the US PGA last year after a run of four missed cuts in six in the middle of the season. Once again we find him climbing slowly off the deck following his Honda Classic walk-out, a moment he described as the lowest of his career, and the loss of his world No 1 ranking to Tiger Woods.
The rehabilitation of Woods is the talk of golf. He is the cover story of Sports Illustrated this month, which features a full-length picture of Woods taken from the rear beneath a one-world headline in capitals: BACK. He is short-odds favourite to claim a fifth Masters crown and take his major total to 15, three short of Jack Nicklaus. Three victories in four strokeplay events on the PGA Tour in 2013 is a mighty demonstration of Woods's form, but there is hope. On the three previous occasions when he has won three times before the Masters, he has failed to triumph at Augusta.
With McIlroy off-colour and Westwood sliding down the world rankings the best hope of a European/British success arguably rests with Justin Rose, whose second place to Woods last time out at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill thrust him into the immediate slipstream of golf's poster boys at a career-high world ranking of No 3. He tops the PGA Tour stats for sand saves, and from 125 yards in there has been no better performer, which is more than handy at Augusta, where the ability to get up and down is powerful string in the golfing bow.
There is a heap of potential in the Ryder Cup henchmen Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell, Ian Poulter and Paul Lawrie, but none has made a compelling case this season. The prospect of a non-American champion arguably rests with a pair of sweet-swinging South Africans, the 2011 champion, Charl Schwartzel, and Louis Oosthuizen, eclipsed in last year's play-off by the wonder wedge of Watson, and the metronomic Australian Adam Scott.
Schwartzel has racked up six top-five finishes in his past eight strokeplay events, while Oosthuizen has one victory this year and shot a 65 last Saturday en route to a top-10 finish in Houston. Scott, who donated the Open Championship to Ernie Els last year after blowing a four-shot lead with four to play, had one arm in the green jacket in 2011 before Schwartzel's quadruple-birdie finish. As he showed with his Sunday-low 64 at the WGC-Cadillac, few glow hotter than Scott once the putts start to drop.
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