Winning the Masters once seemed as easy as falling off a log for a golden generation of European players.
From Seve Ballesteros in 1980 through to José María Olazábal in 1999, six Europeans captured 11 green jackets in 20 years. Bernhard Langer (twice), Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo (three times), and Ian Woosnam also triumphed in those golden years but while Europe has had great players since the turn of the century, we’re still waiting for that overdue Masters win.
With the exception of Luke Donald, whose strength was his putting, many believe that Europe’s best players of the past 10 to 15 years have been ball-strikers like Lee Westwood for Colin Montgomerie.
Langer himself is at a loss to explain why there has been no European wins here since 1999 and bar the fact the Big Six of the 1980s and 90s might simply be better players, he reckons seizing the moment is all that stands between the likes of Rory McIlroy or Justin Rose and a green jacket. “McIlroy? His game should be perfect,” Langer said at Augusta National this week. “He hits it far and he hits it high; short game is pretty good. So he can do it. He should be in contention and hopefully win it. Sooner or later…”
Still, the 58-year old German is at a loss to explain why Europeans have struggled to get the job done.
“It is a strange thing,” he said. “But that’s golf. You have 100 guys and only one is going to win. You have got to be on top of your game that week.”
Being on top of your game is key but having the courage of your convictions is another and Langer, a master of strategy, is not as conservative as you might imagine. While Paul McGinley sees taking on Augusta like a game of poker, where winning or losing depends on knowing “when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em”, Langer was also prepared to take chances.
“What did I do well when I won here?” Langer mused. “…Everything.” Sure, you have to know when to “hold ‘em and fold ‘em.” But as Langer knows, winning is sometimes about cold-heartedly, ruthlessly murdering the opposition with a telling blow at the right time. “No-go pins? When it’s back left on 11,” Langer says. “But even there you can go for it, if you are swinging well. That’s what I am saying. If you are swinging really well, you actually do go for everything. And that’s the key.
“You could say 16 back right. But if you miss it right you are going to make bogey anyway. There are a bunch of pins like that. When you are on top of your game, you can do it. But when you are not , you’d better not try too often.”
Is McIlroy on top of his game? His performances so far this season would suggest that while he’s not quite there yet, he’s not far away either.
A hole in one on Monday was a nice way to start his week but with 53 of the top 55 in the world gathered on a course that the players say is already set to play harder than ever, the field is deep.
“You just don’t know,” says two-time winner Ben Crenshaw. McIlroy knows he can do it but he has to prove it before it becomes a burden. I feel like I’m a good enough player,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got everything I need to become a Masters champion. There’s no time like the present to get it done.”
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