Heaven and hell at Augusta

 

THE short backswing betrayed his 74 years as he drove up the 18th fairway in practice yesterday, a lone, stooped figure with his black caddie. Though he has not made the cut since 1971, Doug Ford, the 1957 champion, is about to equal Sam Snead's record by playing in his 44th US Masters, starting at Augusta National this morning.

Early morning frost, which kept long lines of spectators waiting an additional 45 minutes before the course was opened, had given way to bright sunshine as Ford completed his round with a two putt bogey five. Why, I wondered, did he keep coming back? Placing a friendly arm on my shoulder. he replied gently "Well, it's heaven here, isn't it."

There in lies the unique appeal of the year's first major championship in which 12 Europeans, headed by Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie, will be attempting to maintain a remarkable dominance in recent decades. Indeed the field of 93 includes many former champions who, as Ford put it, have earned the right to compete in this special place.

They include the title holder, Ben Crenshaw, who seemed to take wicked delight yesterday in emphasising the treacherous nature of the greens, even at this stage of the week. "The power of the greens has everyone thinking, said one of the game's finest exponents of the blade. "They are very hard, very firm and very quick."

Warming to his favourite element of the game, Crenshaw went on "The great fascination of these greens is that I've never had anywhere close to the same putts on successive years, as many times as I've played them. It means that each time we play here, we're trying to re-learn the course.

So it is that virtually all of the 19 debutantes can be eliminated as serious challengers. When I discussed their prospects with Tom Watson, he kept pointing to the 1979 victory by Fuzzy Zoeller, on his first appearance here. But even Zoeller shared the general scepticism. "The key to it is to get a local caddie, who knows where the hell he's going and knows which way the greens break," he said.

When I won I had an Augusta National caddie, Jariah Beard, who led me around like a blind man. That seeing eye dog was great. He told me where to hit it and where not to hit it. On the par fives, he told me when to go for it in two shots and when to lay up. Those guys know.

Competitors were forced to use Augusta National caddies until 1983. But when players were given freedom of choice, Crenshaw saw no reason to change from his established caddie, Carl Jackson, who was with him in his emotional moment of triumph last year. According to Jackson, the most difficult greens to read are the 12th and 17th, though he added "I'm not going to give up the secrets.

But the man who is reputed to have given Crenshaw only one misread in their 15 years together, couldn't resist volunteering that "Number 12 is sitting right on the mother lode (for difficulty). And I think the design of the 17th green, with its hidden little slopes is great. You just have to know how to look for, them."

Montgomerie is confident, however, that he and his Scottish caddie, Alastair Maclean, have also found the answers. In the process, he summed up the challenge of the greens when saying. "If you become worried about the putt coming back, you've already missed the one you're hitting." Most club golfers can identify with that.

The Scot looked to be remarkably composed and confident as he finalised his preparation yesterday with nine holes on the course, augmented by his familiar putting drill. This involves sinking 100 three foot putts if you miss one, you have to start all over again.

The transformation from the tetchy, petulant character of former years was illustrated by an amusing little exchange during yesterday's press conference. When talking about the nice things that have been happening to him this week, Montgomerie told of a note he received from one of his biggest sponsors.

"Mr Callaway (of Callaway clubs) congratulated me on my performance in the Players Championship and added that he believes l can win this week. That was nice." To which a British scribe countered "Was that written on the back of a cheque9,, Where he would once have thundered angrily at such a suggestion, the Scot responded with a br9ad smile. Clearly, he is learning the ropes.

The problem about choosing a prospective winner of the 60th Masters is that reasons can be found to eliminate virtually every category of player. For instance, no amateur has ever won this title so, bye bye Tiger Woods and Gordon Sherry. And Jack Nicklaus and Faldo are the only champions to have defended successfully.

At 46, Nicklaus was the oldest winner, while Zoeller was the only victorious newcomer. Too much experience can also be a dangerous commodity only four players have gone on to win after 10 failed attempts Billy Casper (14th appearance), Crenshaw (13th in 1984), Raymond Floyd (12th in 1976) and Tommy Aaron (11th). That increases the odds against a breakthrough by Greg Norman, who has been unsuccessful on 15 occasions.

The only player to make the Masters his first win in the US was Bernhard Langer in 1985. This heightens the challenge for Montgomerie despite his third place finish in the 1992 US Open, his play off defeat by Ernie Els in the same championship in 1994 and his play off defeat by Steve Elkington in the USPGA last August.

Recent form is also important. For instance. 54 of the 59 Masters winners had won at least one tournament in the previous calendar year. That places a question mark against competitors such as David Frost, John Huston, Paul Azinger, Brad Faxon and Jeff Sluman. And since 1973, all first time winners here have been 32 or younger, which rules out Loren Roberts, Tom Lehman, Mark Brooks and Mark Calcavecchia.

Despite the foregoing, Watson believes that Norman will win. So does the Australian's manager. Frank Williams, who has bet $5,000 on his man.

My own feeling is that for the first time since Larry Mize followed Nicklaus in 1987, it will be won in successive years by an American. And the two leading candidates are 31 year old Davis Love, who was runner up to Crenshaw 12 months ago, and 25 year old Phil Mickelson, who was tied seventh last year, on his third appearance. Love's putting used to be suspect, but not any more, as his recent victory in New Orelans demonstrated.

Still, the undisguised hope of Europeans who delighted in a Ryder Cup triumph over here last September is that Montgomerie could earn the right to return to August a National for the next 40 years, like a 21st century Doug Ford.