• Flying the flag

    Masters preview
    The Big 3 on duty

    It’s been eight years since a South African won The Masters. This year our main hopes lie with Louis Oosthuizen, Branden Grace and Charl Schwartzel.

    Every golfer dreams of winning The Masters, and no doubt many have created a movie in their head as to how it would pan out.

    Making birdie on the final hole by chipping in – or sinking a treacherous 35-footer for victory would have to be near the top of that vision. There are probably those who would prefer the less dramatic and nerve-racking route, like the one Tiger Woods took in 1997 when he led by three shots at the halfway mark, stretched it to nine after 54 holes and eventually won by 12 strokes after rounds of 70, 66, 65 and 69.

    However, in daring to dream, when the moment arrives it’s an experience unlike anything you could have imagined. South Africa has produced three Masters champions over the years – Gary Player (three times), Trevor Immelman and Charl Schwartzel, although there was plenty of hope and expectation around Ernie Els, particularly in the early 1990s when he twice finished runner-up.

    What does The Masters mean to Els?

    ‘We have a cupboard-load of crystalware, like glasses, bowls and vases, including one for a hole-in-one at the Par 3 Contest. But just not a Green Jacket. It goes without saying I would swap all that stuff for a Green Jacket.’

    Schwartzel, the winner in 2011, says: ‘Winning on the European Tour is one thing and I won’t take away from any of my victories. But it’s nothing like trying to win at Augusta.

    ‘I knew I was good enough to win The Masters, but when it actually happened, there was no one more surprised than me. Suddenly you go from being a European Tour winner to winning the biggest tournament in golf, and the hype around it was massive. For the first bit you’re riding such a wave of confidence that you’re almost just playing with confidence because you’re the Masters champion. But when it started going bad, I didn’t have the experience to deal with it.’

    Immelman, whose career changed after his 2008 Masters win, said: ‘It was a crazy time for my family and me, in a good way, obviously. There were a lot of things we had to learn to deal with, and that was something I wasn’t prepared for. My whole life I’d prepared and practised for hopefully winning a Major. I was far from prepared for the off-course things I was going to have to deal with.’

    Player also regularly speaks about the unique pressures that Augusta brings. ‘During all tournaments, but especially at the Major championships, players face an immense pressure, whether it’s on the tee box or around the greens. It follows you everywhere. Before, during and after each round every day. But there seems to be a certain aura and mystique in the permanent, hallowed grounds of Augusta National during The Masters week. More often than not, the player is going to fail. But those who have the confidence, character and patience to overcome the adversity and pressure that all Masters victories entail, certainly deserve to be called champions.’

    LOUIS OOSTHUIZEN

    Came so close to making it back-to-back South African winners when losing out on the second playoff hole to Bubba Watson in 2012. He had made an albatross-two on the 2nd hole in the final round, only the fourth ‘double eagle’ in Masters history, and he held a two-shot lead early in the round. ‘That was my first double eagle ever,’ he said. ‘So it was tough; it was tough the next five holes to get my head around it and just play the course.’ Watson produced one of the greatest improvised shots of all time when he hooked a ball 40 yards with a 52-degree wedge from 144 yards in the playoff. Of little consolation for Oosthuizen is that he has the ‘grand slam’ of second-place finishes at the four Majors, as well as for the ‘unofficial fifth Major’, The Players Championship.

    Best Masters finish: 2nd (2012)

    10 Masters appearances: 2018 (T12th), 2017 (T41st), 2016 (T15th), 2015 (T19th), 2014 (T25th), 2013 (MC), 2012 (2nd), 2011 (MC), 2010 (MC), 2009 (MC)

    BRANDEN GRACE

    In 2015, Branden Grace had his best year at the Majors. He finished tie-fourth at the US Open, third at The PGA Championship and tie-20th at The Open Championship. But he missed the cut at The Masters. ‘I think I just wanted it too much,’ he said afterwards. Despite his record, Grace remains hopeful. ‘If you come here and try to win and try to finish second or third you’ll be happy, but if you say you can’t win and just try to get a top-10 you’ll never get anywhere. I feel I’ve given myself some chances at the Majors, and the putting is something that is giving me that little bit extra to help me get over the line.’

    Best Masters finish: T18th (2013) 6 Masters appearances: 2018 (T24th), 2017 (T27th), 2016 (MC), 2015 (MC), 2014 (MC), 2013 (T18th)

    CHARL SCHWARTZEL

    Then just 26, he birdied the last four holes, going 4, 2, 3, 3 for a final-round 66 to win the 2011 Masters by two shots over Australians Jason Day and Adam Scott. The favourite heading into the final round was Rory McIlroy, but he collapsed to a closing 80. Going into the Sunday four shots back, Schwartzel charged through the field. ‘It was such an exciting day, with all the roars. The atmosphere was just incredible.’ No doubt he could also hear the roars back in South Africa.

    Best Masters finish: 1st (2011) 9 Masters appearances: 2018 (MC), 2017 (3rd), 2016 (MC), 2015 (T38th), 2014 (MC), 2013 (T25th), 2012 (T50th), 2011 (1st), 2010 (T30th)

    TREVOR IMMELMAN

    The veteran turns 40 at the end of this year and will be teeing up at his 16th Masters, although he hasn’t made the cut in his last five. He last broke par at Augusta in 2013. However, nothing can take away that glorious week in 2008 from him when he held off Tiger Woods to win by three strokes. Of his recent years, he openly admits: ‘The problem with being an athlete is this, and you see it in every sport: because you were very good or great at your sport at some point in time, that part never goes away, thinking you can still be that guy. Even when your skill diminishes, for whatever reason – age, injury, whatever – there’s still something inside you that makes you think you can do it. That’s probably one of the reasons you were any good in the first place. It’s like being a perfectionist. It helps you up to a certain point, and then it starts hurting you. It can eventually hold you back.’

    Best Masters finish: 1st (2008) 15 Masters appearances: 2018 (MC), 2017 (MC), 2016 (MC), 2015 (MC), 2014 (MC), 2013 (T50th), 2012 (60th), 2011 (T15th), 2010 (T14th), 2009 (T20th), 2008 (1st), 2007 (T55th), 2006 (MC), 2005 (T5th), 2004 (MC)

    JOVAN REBULA

    Is in the field as an amateur because of his victory at last year’s British Amateur, the first South African to win that event in 52 years. Best Masters finish: Makes his debut, 0 Masters appearances.

    *Justin Harding after his win in Qatar. Harding moved to No 52 in the world after that. Should he get into the top 50 before The Masters, he’ll be in Augusta.

    – This article first appeared in the April issue of Compleat Golfer, Harding subsequently booked his place at Augusta

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