Montgomerie is already Europe's main hope

 

HAZY SUNSHINE accompanied by a gentle, cooling breeze made it perfect golfing weather. It's amazing to see so many people, just to watch guys practising, observed Phil Mickelson as he made his way towards the quaint, colonial

Given time for ion however, even self professionals would that the US Masters is much about a place as it is about players.

The place had clearly lost none of its unique charm and mystique as top challengers arrived yesterday from all points to compete in 60th staging of the year's first major championship. Despite the presence of Bernhard Langer, Nick and Seve Ballesteros all two time champions, along with former winners Ian Woosnam and Sandy Lyle, the inescapable feeling was that Colin Mongomerie would being European hopes.

"My caddie told me that simply because I was number two in the world rankings, it didn't mean I had to finish second all the time," said the new, slim line Scot, with a wry smile. "I expect to contend well this week, provided I manage to get the putter going."

Montgomerie, who finished tied 123rd in the BellSouth Classic at Alanta Country Club last Sunday, is competing here for a fifth successive year. He missed the cut in 1994 but returned for his highest finish a share of 17th place 12 months ago. But he is attempting to become only the second player in the history of the event to capture the Masters without first having won elsewhere on the US Tour. That distinction rests with the 1985 champion, Langer.

Indeed it is impossible to escape from the remarkable tradition associated with this great event. For instance, at 9.30 this morning, an $82,000 larger than life bronze sculpture of Arnold Palmer, four times winner of the Masters, will be unveiled.

Visitors will join local enthusiasts in getting their first taste of the planned Georgia Golf Hall of Fame which, already fully funded, is to be a key part of an arts centre in downtown Augusta. The sculpture depicts the man who did most to popularise the Masters, peering down the 10th fairway and poised to embark on a typical, back nine charge.

It is the first of a total of eight planned sculptures, depicting great champions inextricably associated with the Masters. The others will be of Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Gary Player and, of course, Bobby Jones, the man who made it all possible. The decision to honour Nicklaus has become especially timely in his 100th tournament victory last Sunday, in the Tradition.

Interestingly there will be no European, despite the assertion by Ballesteros that "I dominated the Masters in the 1980s. I won it twice, in 1980 and 1983, and I had many more chances to win. I deserved to win it at least once more. I feel Augusta owes me something."

Ballesteros will be 39 today but, sadly, it is unlikely to be a particularly happy birthday from a golfing standpoint. Apart from a recurrence of serious back problems for the Spaniard, this also happens to be the 10th anniversary of the most significant and from his stand point painful stagings in the history of the Masters.

It is widely acknowledged that Nicklaus captured the title for a sixth time in 1986, largely because of the Spaniard's disastrous play of the 15th hole. "That one shots stopped me from being an even better player," said Ballesteros, referring to a four iron approach which he smothered into the water, in attempting to fade it onto the 15th green. It coincided with a birdie from Nicklaus at the short 16th and the Spaniard's spirit was broken beyond repair.

Yet his mood yesterday was typically combative. "Yes, my back has been giving me problems," he admitted. "But people must be patient with me. They must realise that I've been away from the game for five months." He went on to explain that the problem he encountered during the Players' Championship was a spasm which has since eased.

There are more serious doubts about the fitness of Langer, winner of this title for a second time in 1993. The German, who played a practice round yesterday with compatriot Alexander Cejka, bruised his right shoulder while playing volleyball on March 23rd, forcing him to withdraw from the Players' Championship and the BellSouth Classic.

"My shoulder is not great," he admitted. "I have been receiving treatment but I don't know if that's going to make a big difference or not. It hurts me to practise and medical opinion is that I should rest for between two to six weeks. It's something that needs to heal with time but where the Masters is concerned, I don't have that time."

Faldo appears to have recovered from recent shoulder spasms while Ian Woosnam showed no sign of back problems during practice yesterday. And Sam Torrance was also up beat about his physical wellbeing, after a recent foot injury that caused him to withdraw from the Desert Classic in Dubai. Indeed he shot a final round of 70 for a total of 290 two over par and a share of 29th place behind Paul Stankowski in Atlanta last Sunday.

Meanwhile, one suspects that the 1992 winner, Fred Couples, was speaking for all of the leading challengers when, with typical directness, he said yesterday "I win tournaments because I putt well and I lose them because I don't." And he could have added that this is especially true, on the most treacherous slopes in golf.