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Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The Darling Buds of April at Augusta

Will Pearson

The Augusta National Golf Club is a part of the world irrevocably associated with the senses, specifically sight, and more explicitly, colour.  This is particularly fitting when one considers the history and heritage that is sewn into the Georgian land on which the club was built.
Two hundred years ago, long before Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts bought the land for $70,000 in 1931, the site was an indigo plantation: colour, quite literally, runs through Augusta’s veins. 
And the evolution towards the vibrant Augusta we now know as the home of the Masters doesn’t end there: in 1857 a Belgian Baron named Louis Mathieu Eduoard Berckmans and his son, Prosper Julius Alphonse, bought the old plantation and established a nursery called “Fruitland”, importing exotic foreign plants and flowers with which to endow their business. 
The evidence of these purchases is still abundant throughout the famous course today, most notably in the grand variety of azaleas and dogwoods, rhododendrons and pines that line Augusta’s renowned grounds.  The land’s history imbues the very names of the holes themselves, each giving reference to the predominant shrub or tree that adorns it, from Tea Olive to Holly.
The 365-acre site has over 80,000 plants, from over 350 varieties, but the wealth of effervescent tones at Augusta is prevalent throughout the course in many other forms: the grass simply seems greener; the bunkers are furnished with sand a burning, pure white, a white matched only in clarity by the pristine clubhouse and cabins; and those famous yellow flags…
The place is undoubtedly special:  special for the fans, special for the media, and most of all, special to the players.
Perhaps it is because the Masters is the first major on the golfing calendar; perhaps because it is always held in the first full week of April, at the dawn of spring, with a long summer stretching out before it; but most likely it is because this most prized of tournaments is always held at the same location.  Year after year the Augusta National plays host to a pantheon of golfing greats and the memories they often create there are as kaleidoscopic as the colours that play witness. 
The place is special; it just has an aura.
This year’s tournament promises to be no less of an occasion.  After travelling down the centuries-old 61-tree vista of Magnolia Lane, “unique” seems to be the recurring word used by players to describe both the Masters and Augusta; a unique place and a unique course that usually requires four superb rounds to claim a coveted green jacket.
Returning champions – already members of an elite guild – have been paying testament to the location in the build up to this year’s competition.  Current Masters champion and world no. 3, Phil Mickelson, stated that returning to Augusta was like “coming home”, while on the twentieth anniversary of his sole major triumph Ian Woosnam eloquently referred to walking off the first tee as like “walking in to paradise”.
But what of 2011’s crop of contenders?
Most bookmakers make Phil Mickelson favourite at odds of around 7/1 after his confidence-boosting win at the Shell Houston Open last week.  The 2010 champion unquestionably feels “at home” at Augusta: already the custodian of three green jackets, his incredible back nine last year – including that 6-iron from behind a tree on 13 – left him level with such greats as Gary Player and Sam Snead in Masters wins. 
Mickelson has the game to make bold choices around Augusta; he knows his reserves of short-game gold can drag him out of trouble from anywhere around these immaculate, yet treacherous, greens.  Could this be the year that “Lefty” puts himself on a historical par with Arnold Palmer and Woods by making it four?  You wouldn’t bet against it. 
And yes, to Tiger Woods.  Without a win in what seems like an eternity, yet amazingly still second favourite in most betting establishments at around 12/1.  Tied for fourth on his return from controversy in 2010 – but Tiger’s early season form this year has been modest at best; currently the former no. 1 is in the process of reconstructing his swing in a fervent search to regain his A-game.  2006 heralded his last win at Augusta, but don’t ever count out Tiger.
The new breed of big-hitting US stars such as Bubba Watson (40/1), Nick Watney (16/1), and Dustin Johnson (28/1) could certainly pose a threat to this year’s title, although their length is unlikely to come too much in to play at Augusta without the introduction of rain.
Closer to home, however, the European contingent of this year’s field has rarely looked so strong.  Coming off the back of last autumn’s Ryder Cup success, six of the current top-ten ranked players in the world are European. 
Recently-instated world no. 1, Martin Kaymer is placed sixth favourite at 22/1.  Although yet to make the cut at the Masters in three attempts, last year’s major success at Whistling Straights in the PGA Championship should boost the German’s confidence going in to the 2011 event where his cool temperament could be a key factor.
Not since Nick Faldo in 1996 has a Masters winner been found from our shores, but with so much home-grown talent knocking on the door could 2011 be the year this changes?
World no. 2 Lee Westwood was pipped at the post in 2010 by an inspired Phil Mickelson despite leading after the second and third rounds.  One of the most consistent golfers in the world in recent times, the Worksop man was briefly ranked at no. 1 in October after a string of good finishes in majors over the last two years.  Despite Westwood’s mixed form this season he should be confident of challenging for his first major and is rated third favourite by bookmakers at 14/1.
Having “shaken the monkey” off his back with victory at the WGC-Accenture Match Play in February, England’s Luke Donald looks good at 20/1.  Sometimes the focus of criticism in the transatlantic media, Donald would do well to remember that even the great Seve Ballesteros was subject to casual stateside barbs throughout his career, once quipping “In the United States, I'm lucky; in Europe, I'm good.”  Despite missing the cut in two of the past three Masters, Donald’s game seems set up for Augusta with his consistency of approach and superb short game.
Paul Casey (33/1) is in good form this year having won the Volvo Championship in January and has made the weekend in all four PGA events this year, while compatriot  Justin Rose (also 33/1) will finally look to string four unfaltering rounds together after having lead on each day at some point before falling away.  The extravagant Ian Poulter (50/1) will revel in the occasion while Ross Fisher has slipped back since a fine 2009 season and is an outsider at 150/1.
Irish friends Graeme McDowell (45/1) and Rory McIlroy (28/1) will be both gunning for glory this week too.  McDowell obviously has major pedigree after his US Open win at Pebble Beach in 2010, but can he better his previous Masters best of tied seventeenth and avoid his fear of being a “one major wonder” (surely there are worse things to be...).
McIlroy is indisputably an exceptional talent and despite missing the cut last year the Holywood man tied for third in the last two majors of 2010 and has enjoyed a good start to the year.  The key to his success might lie in his decision making; can McIlroy rule his heart with his young head at a course famed for its ruthless acceptance of wayward risk-and-reward efforts.
Finally, a mention must also go to Scotland’s new hope in Martin Laird (66/1), who after a win at Bay Hill in Arnold Palmer’s event is this year making his Masters debut.
And so, eighty years after Jones and Roberts bought the nursery that would become the greatest golf course in the world, new memories and new heroes wait in the Augustan wings for the beginning of this year’s Masters story.
On this most vivid and stimulating of sets, ablaze in the luminous light of thousands of Berckmans’ dogwoods, perhaps one of our British starlets – either young or old – might now blossom into a major winning champion.  
In doing so they would write their name indelibly onto the pages of sporting history, stain it on the paper in Georgian indigo.  

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