Singular force of Couples

Peter Corrigan surveys the contenders as Uncle Sam prepares to reign over Augusta
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EVERY classic golf course resounds with its past but in the first full week of April the Augusta National is more alive with echoes than any of the game's shrines. It is nowhere near as old as most of them and doesn't creak with the same venerability but in its 62 years the home of the US Masters has grown into a unique and precious place.

Perhaps it helps that most of its ghosts are still alive. Not, alas, its founder, the great Bobby Jones, but many of the heroic Masters victors since the first in 1934 can be seen among the azaleas and dogwoods, making their annual pilgrimage to the field of dreams. It is their right to play if they wish; the oldest competitor last year was 71-year-old Doug Ford who won in 1957. Arnold Palmer, 66, says he'll continue to play as long as he can walk. Those who can't play, or even walk, will continue to be invited back as honoured guests for as long as they live and probably long after that.

Three of the oldest surviving winners will officially start the tournament at 8am on Thursday. With the dew still dampening the tips of the velvet sward and the chill yet to leave the breeze, Gene Sarazen (1935), Byron Nelson (1937 and 1942) and Sam Snead (1949, 1952 and 1954) are due to tee-off as gracefully as their combined age of 258 years will permit. Dressed in the garish way that once defined the American pro and which would still get them thrown out of any self- respecting eventide home, they will demonstrate that bones may bend but a good swing lasts forever. Then they'll step back and let the young cut-throats get at each other.

It is remarkable how rapidly the Masters is transformed from a breathtaking sporting pageant among the glories of a Georgian spring into a savage challenge of a player's ability and an assault on his composure ruthless enough to leave a scar on his soul. The battle for the famous Green Jacket doesn't really begin until the final nine holes and by then the Augusta National has shed the trappings of paradise and takes on the character of a snake-infested swamp.

This reluctance to be conquered is also manifest among the spectators who share in the uniqueness of it all by being the same people every year. Other major championships move from course to course and attract different audiences. The Masters is rooted among the pines of Augusta and its tickets are sent every year to the same list of names. This leads to a certain possessiveness that erupted a few years ago into excessive patriotism. There was an understandable reason; before 1980 the only non-American who had won their coveted title had been Gary Player who they took to be one of theirs anyway. Then Seve Ballesteros won it and did it again in 1983. Bernhard Langer triumphed in 1985 and in 1988 there began a four- year British domination by Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo (twice) and Ian Woosnam.

The great Fred Couples rescued the title for Uncle Sam in 1992 but it was taken back to Europe in 1993 by Bernhard Langer and the following year by Jose Maria Olazabal. Last year, however, came a European collapse. Ben Crenshaw won the event in scenes of heavy emotion because his mentor Harvey Penick had passed away on the eve of the tournament. It was a thoroughly American climax. The nearest representative of the old continent was Olazabal who tied for 14th place. Since the Masters has practically become America v The Rest, this was interpreted as a comforting pointer to the Ryder Cup due to be played six months later in Rochester, New York. The fact that the US were beaten on their own soil will do nothing to ease the week's nationalistic undertones which will reach even into the race for the silver cup for the best amateur.

Last year, this trophy was won in style by the prodigy Eldrick "Tiger" Woods who was later to feature in America's Walker Cup team unexpectedly defeated by GB and Ireland at Royal Porthcawl. The giant Scot Gordon Sherry, who more than anyone epitomised our spirited performance in the Walker Cup, is competing in the Masters by dint of being the British Amateur champion and will find himself in a re-enactment of the Walker Cup. Sherry, who will be 22 tomorrow, proved last year that he can cope with pressure but he will find it difficult on the Tiger's own patch.

The rest of Europe is not in good shape collectively. Ballesteros is liable to resemble a lumbago advert at any minute and Langer, too, has fitness problems. As only the second back-to-back winner in Masters history, Faldo can never be dismissed as a contender but hasn't been on his game of late. Woosnam had a brilliant start to the year and is very well suited to the course but even he would have to admit that Colin Montgomerie carries the bulk of the European challenge. He hasn't even mildly frightened Augusta in his four previous outings but he appears confident he can introduce the necessary draw into the shape of his shots, while changes to a diet which was once as big a threat to our food industry as BSE has helped produce aggressive form.

But the Americans are able to call on a formidable home guard headed by the hugely gifted Couples who won thrillingly in 1992 and was well in the hunt last year until he blew up in the last round. His spectacular victory at Sawgrass last week may have been aided by a fortunate bounce but there's nothing wrong with being lucky. He has every claim to being the best golfer in the world, certainly the most charismatic. Greg Norman is officially the world No 1 but there are others to be fancied ahead of him and they are all Americans.

If you had followed John Daly on his final round last year you would have written him off forever as a potential Master. But this turbulent man is capable of anything as he showed in winning the Open at St Andrews. Augusta suits his style and his temperament has a rare evenness at the moment. Couples is the choice to get America's revenge for the Ryder and Walker Cups but Daly, the man they didn't pick for their Ryder team, is capable of wreaking double vengeance.