European Win Long Overdue at Masters

By: Tony Dear

In the 20 Masters tournaments played between 1980 and 1999, European golfers won an impressive 11 green jackets. They were divvied up between Nick Faldo (three), Seve Ballesteros (two), Bernhard Langer (two), Jose Maria Olazabal (two), Sandy Lyle (one), and Ian Woosnam (one).

In the 13 years since the turn of the century, however, golfers from across the Atlantic have taken home a truck-load of crystal for winning the Par 3 Contest (Padraig Harrington three times, Luke Donald once); recording the lowest round of the day (16 times); acing a par-3 (Harrington at the 16th in 2004, Ian Poulter the 16th four years later), and many eagles - but nary a jacket.

It's a remarkable statistic when you consider how few Europeans played in the event 20 or 30 years ago compared to today. In 1980, for instance, just four made the trip, including Ballesteros, who won the tournament by four shots over Gibby Gilbert and Jack Newton. Sixteen years later, when Faldo won for the third time shooting a superlative final-round 67 while Greg Norman crumbled to a 78, only 11 fellow Europeans were present. Last year, there were 30.

Anyone trying to explain how or why modern Europeans have failed to emulate Faldo, Ballesteros and previous winners from across the Pond is probably clutching at straws, just like the guy trying to enlighten us as to why U.S. players won the first 14 PGA Tour events of the 2013 season with so many good Europeans, Aussies, and Asian players in the field each week.

The fact is there is no apparent reason why the cream of Europe's crop hasn't won the first major of the year since Olazabal took his second Masters in 1999. The numbers and quality of players involved would certainly suggest they should have added to the continent's tally, at least once. But they haven't. It's just golf; that's the way it goes.

This week, 28 players will be attempting to break the European's 21st century duck. An Old World native might pin his hopes on 15 or more potential winners, but the realist - the man wanting to place a bet - will study the form and past Masters experience and whittle that number down unsympathetically. Some will be tempted to seek decent each-way odds on Harrington, Carl Pettersson, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia.

And many will have been impressed by Martin Laird, who wasn't even in the tournament last Sunday morning but finished the day $1.116 million better off and with his third straight Masters berth following a brilliant 9-under 63 at the Valero Texas Open. If the green jacket is to be slipped over European shoulders come Sunday evening, however, it's likely they will belong to Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Justin Rose, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter or Graeme McDowell.

It will be interesting to see what effect McIlroy's tie for second in San Antonio last week will have on the 23-year-old two-time major champion. Before San Antonio, the Ulsterman's 2013 form had been patchy at best, the low point coming at the Honda Classic where he walked off the course having played the first eight holes of his second round in 7-over par, complaining first of being in a "bad place" mentally, and later a toothache. In Texas, however, he shot a sterling 66 Sunday to finish at 12-under 276 - two shots behind Laird, who won his third Tour title.

A performance like that could well be all McIlroy needs to give him sufficient momentum to mount a serious challenge at Augusta National. That said, he will need to find a way of posting better weekend numbers than he has the past two years.

In 2011, he led by four strokes entering the final round but came apart on the back nine following a duck-hook off the 10th tee that surely ended up further left than anyone had ever been in the tournament's 77-year history. The painful outcome was a triple-bogey seven, which he followed with a three-putt bogey on the 11th. At the par-3 12th, he hit the treacherously shallow green but then failed to find the cup with any of his first three putts. He would pencil in a double-bogey five that more or less finished him off.

Pulling his drive at the 13th into Rae's Creek was the final nail in a very hastily constructed coffin. He shot 43 on the home half, 80 in total and plummeted from the top of the leaderboard into a tie for 15th in the space of nine disastrous holes. Last year, he didn't do an awful lot, better shooting 77, 76 in the third and fourth rounds after opening with a 71 and 69.

For some, McIlroy's negatives may well outweigh the positives. They will assert that, though he is obviously capable of shooting low numbers at Augusta National and winning majors, he has yet to prove he can handle the very distinct pressure of the back nine on Masters Sunday. Indeed, one wonders what might go through his head if he were to find himself in the lead standing on the 10th tee in this year's final round.

Europe's other main contenders have fared considerably better in the final round in recent tournaments. Westwood has averaged 70 on Sunday since 2010, Donald 68.5 over the last couple of years. Rose fired a 4-under 68 on the final day in both 2011 and '12, and Poulter has an average of 71.6 from the last three Masters. McDowell, meanwhile, may have played Sunday only twice in five appearances, but has averaged 68.5.

Westwood has the best record at Augusta among Europe's favored group, with two top-three finishes in the last three years, and three top-10s in all. It's far too early to assess how his experimental move to the U.S. is working, but his early season form does promise much with seven cuts made from seven starts and two top-10s.

It is Rose, however, who seems to be attracting the most attention. The 32-year-old climbed into third in the world ranking thanks to a runner-up finish at Bay Hill two weeks ago and, while he may not be able to match Westwood's Masters record, he can boast a blemish-free report card having made the cut in every one of his seven appearances.

So far this year, Rose has posted three top-10s in four official PGA Tour events and has the best scoring average on Tour with 68.68, a result, perhaps, of the huge distance gain he has made. From 2008 to 2012, the Englishman averaged 288.8 yards off the tee and ended the year in the distance standings an average of 95th place. This year, however, he is hitting it 301.3 yards and is currently eighth in driving distance. His direction off the tee, meanwhile, has suffered rather - he is 126th in driving accuracy compared with 27th at the end of last year.

But though this turnaround in his stats might prove disadvantageous at the US Open and other events played on tight courses, one suspects it might work out well for Rose at Augusta where length is most definitely rewarded and accuracy not as vital as it might be elsewhere.

Currently fourth in the betting, Rose can be had at 18-1 - not bad odds for a player with two top-10sat Augusta who is apparently playing some of the best golf of his life.

Given the depth of the field, however, and how well a certain Tiger Woods has been playing lately, even the best golf of Justin Rose's young life might not be enough to stop the European rot.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at