Once upon a time, Europe’s golfers would treat the first major of the year – the Masters at Augusta – as if it were a home away from home. There might not have been a European winner between 1934 and 1979, but 1980 saw the late, great Severiano Ballesteros triumph. From then on, there would be no stopping the best European golfers. Not only would Seve win it again three years later, but the likes of Bernhard Langer (twice), Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo (three times, including back to back victories in 1989-1990), Ian Woosnam, and José María Olazábal (twice) got to feel the majestic green jacket around their shoulders.
But since Olazábal triumphed in 1999, no European has been able to replicate the Spaniard’s success. Sure, you can’t get much closer than 22-year-old Northern Irish phenom Rory McIlroy did last year – he somehow managed to turn a four-stroke final day lead, into an eight-over-par 80, putting him 10 shots back of South African winner Charl Schwartzel – but it will be a considerable cause for concern if McIlroy, plus his European neighbors, aren’t in contention deep into Sunday.
Indeed, there’s a case to be made that no American (nor any other nationality) should be considered the favorite going into the major. The top three ranked players in the world – McIlroy is number two with Englishmen Luke Donald and Lee Westwood one spot above and below – hail from Europe. German Martin Kaymer and Englishman Justin Rose are also in the top 10. If you were feeling generous, you would include Spain’s Sergio Garcia among those in the running (though he seems to be the one player unable to shake off that unwanted tag of greatest ever player to never have won a major).
So for the purposes of retaining our sanity (to say nothing of brevity), let’s assess the main four Europeans in the running. McIlroy has smartly decided to address his meltdown of 12 months ago. “At this stage I can laugh about it,” he told the BBC. “It was the first time I’d been on the course since last year and the first time I’d been on the 10th,” said the Ulsterman. Ah yes, the 10th. For those who watched, it still brings a shudder. Who knows what demons McIlroy had to deal with. His tee shot ricocheted off a tree, nestling neatly between the cabins that separate the main course from the par-three course. It resulted in a triple-bogey from which he couldn’t recover. But he bounced back in spectacular style, winning the very next major (U.S. Open) and is playing with a panache many believe will serve him right this year and in the future. “If he ends up learning this golf course I think he’s going to win here a number of times,” said three-time winner Phil Mickelson, who knows a thing or two about Augusta (and don’t discount him from a top five finish this time around either).
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And what of the Englishmen? There’s actually suggestions of tension between McIlroy and Westwood, which adds further spice to a major hardly in need of extra drama (this post is going to try and avoid the words Tiger Woods, for example). They no longer share the same agent (Andrew “Chubby” Chandler) due to what McIlroy called “maybe being led down the wrong path, or a path that I didn’t want to go down.” He even unfollowed Westwood on Twitter because “he tweets so much. He fills up your timeline.” Westwood responded with a “what path was that?” but could this be the extra motivation he requires to get over the finish line and snag that elusive major? He’s been in contention at the Masters before and some are saying he’s playing the best golf of his life.
But the current world number one is his compatriot Donald, who isn’t short of confidence either. In fact, he’d like you to know that, contrary to what our partners at Sports Illustrated might want you to believe, it’s not the “Tiger and Rory Show.” “I’m still a decent number in the bookies, aren’t I?” he asked earlier in the week (14/1, Mr. Donald, which, for the record, yours truly has backed). “I don’t know if I’ve been written off yet.” He certainly hasn’t (or shouldn’t be), what with five victories over the past 14 months, with the most recent coming just two weeks ago in Tampa. Impressively, Donald gave up the opportunity to defend the (admittedly spurious) par-three competition to concentrate on getting in an extra nine holes on Wednesday (for what it’s worth, no winner of the par-three has ever won a green jacket).
Yet the one Englishman (though born in South Africa) not getting much attention is Justin Rose. While probably best known in the majors for his surprising performance as a 17-year-old amateur in The British Open, he’s held the first round lead, or a share of it, three times at Augusta and came an impressive fifth in 2007. He’s won a bunch of U.S. events over the past couple of years and has shown to be calm under pressure. But can Rose, or one of his fellow Europeans, close a win on Masters Sunday, and end the continent’s Augusta drought?