Patience, creativity and shot-placement all count in Augusta


CADDIE'S ROLE:This year KJ Choi will carry hybrid clubs as high up as six-iron to hold these tricky greens

SO IT’S the first major jamboree of the season this week and the private jets were already piling up at Bush Field, Augusta’s regional airport, when we arrived on Sunday evening. Not all of their passengers were there strictly for the golf: we saw some hunting rifles being unloaded from one of the less modest jets, alongside a couple of sets of golf clubs.

Spring time in Augusta is as much about spectator tradition as player worship. Sunday is when the real golf fans roll into town in time for the three official practice rounds. Despite the almost control-freakish rules that are strictly enforced here at the National, early in the week is the time “for a little fun”, as they might say in the south.

I arrived with my boss, Edoardo Molinari, who had enjoyed a tournament break in Orlando last week. He is residing temporarily at Lake Nona, the winter residence of a considerable number of Europe’s high-ranking golfers. Many take advantage of their world ranking to play in events they are exempt for in America in the run-up to the Masters.

The golf club at Lake Nona is so professional-friendly they prepare the practice facilities to replicate the conditions at Augusta. The practice putting and chipping green is honed to a speed normal for this coming weekend, about 13 on the Stimpmeter – on the flat parts of the greens. So in the secluded, professional only, end of the Lake Nona range there were golfers hitting their ball of choice and chipping and putting on perfect Augusta-like greens with one thing in mind: what type of game do I need to win a Green Jacket?

If the professionals were not enjoying a pre-Masters respite, they were probably playing in Houston last week, where the organisers had also tried to emulate the conditions the competitors are going to face this week. It is interesting tournaments preceding majors will go a long way to emulate the conditions expected in the major that follows.

Some players will go to the lengths of changing their equipment to meet the requirements of this week’s challenge. With the sub-air drainage system in operation under Augusta National’s putting surfaces the speed of the greens is controlled largely by the green-jacketed members of the club rather than the vicissitudes of nature.

If it rains heavily through the night, the sub-air system can drain the greens and keep their pace up for the next day’s play. Only if it rains during the course of play does nature prevail.

Tiger Woods played with KJ Choi last year, unusually for all four rounds. KJ had the pace of the greens figured out and putted as if his ball was under remote control. Tiger and Steve Williams, his caddie, agreed it was the best putting they had witnessed at the Masters.

It is not a revelation that winning tournaments is directly linked to how you putt, but this is particularly so with the treacherous nature of Augusta’s greens. If you get a 30-foot putt slightly wrong the chances are you are going to be 15 feet away from the hole for your next. Therefore leaving yourself on the right side of the pin cannot be overvalued.

Which raises a further question, of how you get your ball to stop on the correct, or uphill, side of the pin? The same gentleman who impressed Woods so much last year has changed the make-up of his bag to be able to stop his ball on the “right side” of the pin. This year KJ will carry hybrid clubs as high up the bag as six-iron. This is a common feature for lady golfers, but most unusual for competing male golfers.

KJ thinks it could give him the edge. The hybrid will fly the same distance as the iron but should stop more quickly due to its higher trajectory.

So as the world’s best went through their pre-Masters preparations in their own ways, whether on a range in Florida or at the tournament in Texas, they all would have been working on their attitude by emphasising patience, their imagination by working on their creativity with their short games, and shot-placement by understanding a 30-foot putt uphill is less stressful than a 15-footer downhill.

Augusta is about discipline and control, not just outside the ropes but even more so by the players inside them. You have to be committed and exceptionally tolerant, especially when you get a capricious gust of Augusta wind when you least need it.

If you are a non-national in contention next Sunday afternoon it might be wise to imagine what it is like to play in front of a naturally biased crowd. Despite the green-jacketed gentlemen’s desire for a fair and level playing field, they cannot control the patriotic nature of their patrons.

Maybe a word of advice from the hunters who parked beside us last Sunday at Bush airfield would prove invaluable for serious Green Jacket contenders: you have got to choose your moment wisely to shoot at your target or risk losing your prey.