Price to take hoodoo in his stride

Peter Corrigan meets the world No 1 whose assiduous appraisal of his game indicates a respect for the course
Click to follow
The Independent Online
For a man who stands astride the world as the undisputed No 1 golfer and who, furthermore, holds the Augusta National course record of 63, Nick Price's battle honours in the US Masters hang surprisingly holed and tattered. He may be king everywhere else but here he bows his head in supplication like most others.

While golf historians get ready to acclaim the first hat-trick of major championships since Ben Hogan 42 years ago, the man preparing to add the Masters to the Open and US PGA titles he gathered in the second half of last year approaches the task with a distinctly deferential air - but this time he believes he has found the secret.

Nine times have Augusta's velvet fairways welcomed his challenge and nine times has he walked, chin up, into the iron fist they keep hidden behind the azaleas. Even in 1986 when he recorded his brilliant 63, he could manage no more than fifth place. That round, he admits, was a one- off. Mostly he has been engulfed. In his nine visits he is a total of 38 over par; of 30 rounds he has broken par in only eight and only four of those have been in the 60s.

However, the pain has been greater in the past two years, because this period has been the glorious summit of his career. Starting with the 1992 US PGA, he has won his first three major championships, set US money-winning records in '93 and '94, twice won the Player of the Year award and twice been slaughtered by Augusta. In 1993 he missed the cut with a second-round 81 and last year a last-round 77 sank him to 35th place. On both occasions many of us who considered his chances worth a wager limped away with him.

He has been trying to explain why the comfortable feeling he is experiencing this year is not just an indication that he is beginning to enjoy the punishment.

"I just feel that in the past I have put too much pressure on myself to win the Masters," he said. "I've always tried to hit my drives a little longer and to send my irons a bit further. Consequently, I've ended up in no man's land because I tried to play a game different from my usual. Midway through the Open at Turnberry last July, it suddenly dawned on me how to play championship golf. I told myself just to play smart and I would have a chance of winning, because at that level everything revolves around the short game. I kept myself in the Open by chipping and putting.

"So this year I've brought my own game to Augusta. I shall be as patient as I possibly can and try not to hit the ball far. When that happens I invariably swing faster and lose my rhythm. You don't have to be a long hitter to win here but you have to putt exceedingly well. Three or four 15-footers for birdies per round will do it, although an Augusta 15-footer is different from any other 15-footer."

Price has spent most of his time here this week working on his short game and although he feels the course is as fast and fiery as he has ever seen it he feels comfortable. "As fast and firm as the greens are they don't frighten me," he said yesterday.

Indeed, nothing seems to be frightening him. "I don't feel anything like the pressure I've had in the last two years and since I haven't been in contention over the past few weeks the focus has shifted away from me. I've been making steady progress and everything is pointing in the right direction."

Price seems only marginally interested in the historical significance of a victory and the controversy that would inevitably arise about whether he would be going for the Grand Slam in the next major, the US Open in June. Grand Slams are meant to be won in the same year. "I'm not playing to win three in a row," he maintained. "I'm playing because I want to win the Masters. I haven't much time left. I am 38 and, realistically, once you reach 43 or 44 you're time is coming to an end. Not everyone is Jack Nicklaus who won it at 46."

Another player determined to cure an undistinguished Masters record by taking a different approach is Colin Montgomerie, who missed the cut last year. He puts that disappointment down to playing too defensively and although he still admits to a healthy fear of Augusta he is determined to be aggressive today when he partners Tom Watson in the first round.

"I'd rather go out attacking and miss the cut than play in the way I have in previous years. I'll be going for the shots and I won't be leaving any putts short," said Montgomerie, who was pleased with eight birdies in a practice round. It may be significant that he only halved the game. His opponent was Ian Woosnam, who has been exuding an air of quiet confidence even when his countryman Max Boyce arrived to offer to act as singing caddie in yesterday's par-three event.