Postponed due to Covid-19, this year’s Masters goes ahead with everything to play for, writes GARY LEMKE in the November issue of Compleat Golfer.
Tick, tock. The clock is ticking, slowly perhaps, but ticking. If a South African doesn’t win The Masters in November it will mark more than eight years since the country produced a Major champion. Not quite the 20-year wait between 1974 and 1994 that Gary Player and Ernie Els bookmarked, but a significant drought nonetheless.
Perhaps it’s that South African fans were spoilt for success, because even when Tiger Woods was collecting 14 Majors between 1997 and 2008, we were able to celebrate five Major wins, and then after Tiger had his meltdown in 2009, we had another three.
When Ernie Els, then 42, won his fourth Major, The Open Championship, in 2012, it capped a run of seven Majors for South Africans in 12 years. That doesn’t mean we haven’t competed.
Louis Oosthuizen has finished tantalisingly close, twice losing in plaoffs, at the 2012 Masters and 2015 Open, while also finishing second at the 2015 US Open and 2017 PGA Championship – and was third at the most recent Major, the US Open. So, if anyone is overdue to be fitted for a Masters Green Jacket it’s the boertjie from Albertinia.
Branden Grace is another who has been on the brink, with five top-10s in Majors between 2015 and 2017. And many tend to forget that Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 champion, came within three shots of Sergio Garcia when third in 2017. So, it’s not to say that we haven’t seen the South African flag flying prominently on the leaderboards, but no one has managed to close out the deal since Ernie did the business at Royal Lytham & St Annes.
Eight years of drought, going on nine, unless someone steps up at Augusta to become the fourth South African after Player, Trevor Immelman and Schwartzel to win a Green Jacket.
Most golfers will tell you that The Open Championship and the Masters are their two preferred Majors to win, if they were given a choice. The US Open and PGA Championship would be more than welcome, but the first two seem to carry more bragging rights and open more doors to rubbing shoulders with knights and royalty.
Player, who won three Masters, has an unraced two-year-old colt in training in a partnership in Cape Town that includes former T20 World Cup winner Craig Kieswetter. The name of the horse? Augusta Green.
The Masters was particularly cruel to Els, who seemed to have the perfect game management for Augusta National and the ability around the greens to triumph. But, the closest he came was in 2000 and 2004 when he was second to Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson, respectively. Els played at The Masters for the final time in 2017 and by that stage of his career had no regrets, just an invaluable collection of memories. ‘I have all kinds of stuff, just not a jacket,’ he said. ‘How many pros get to play 23 times at the Masters? I’ll never forget my first, playing with Ben Crenshaw and then Jose Maria Olazabal. What an education it was.’
In 2004, Els made eagles at the 8th and 13th to shoot 67 in the final round and waited for a potential playoff with Mickelson. But ‘Lefty’ birdied 16 and 18 to shoot 31 on the back nine and leave Els gutted on the practice putting green. It’s a memory Els called ‘special’.
‘That really stung me; it still stings. I thought Phil was going to make a mistake; that was the thing that ditched me. I just took the foot off the pedal a little bit because I had two birdie putts on 17 and 18 but I wasn’t aggressive enough. That’s the thing that burns me. If I kept going at it … it is what it is. There’s always a game within a game. You can blame the course but you also think the guy normally blows it at 18 and he makes birdie on me. As I said, the blend just wasn’t drinkable. It’s fine, I’ve got no regrets.’ That was 2017.
By last year Els, now 50, had a while to think about it. ‘To be honest with you, I won’t miss the place,’ he said. ‘When a thing stings you, it keeps on stinging you. I’ve got a love-hate relationship with the place. It was almost like a curse to me, it was not a romantic deal to me. It’s like, “It’s not giving me anything.” How many times do you want to run into a wall? That is how I felt my last couple of years. I had enough of it, move on. It’s a unique place but I’m done with it. It’s done with me.’
Someone else chasing the Green Jacket who had seemed destined to win one is four-time Major champion Rory McIlroy. The Northern Irishman won the US Open at 22, The PGA Championship at 23 and then added The Open and another PGA Championship to his collection when he was 25. He is now 31 and hasn’t added to his Major tally. Not that he doesn’t get tired of being reminded that he needs to win The Masters to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods in having claimed all four Majors.
‘I think there’s a difference between a personal desire and a need, and I think I’ve separated those two,’ he said before last year’s Masters. ‘I would have said a couple of years ago, “I need to win a Masters. I need a Green Jacket.” Now it’s, “I want to. I want to win it.” And I’d love to win it. But if I don’t I’m OK. And I think that is the difference.
‘It’s definitely taken me time to come to terms with the things I’ve needed to deal with inside my own head. A Grand Slam would be a massive achievement. It would be huge. But again, I can’t think of it that way. I just have to go out and play the golf course the way I know I can play and repeat that for four days and, hopefully, that’s good enough to have the lowest score that week.’
Last year Woods won his fifth Masters at the age of 43 and his first Major since the 2008 US Open, and his 15th in total. It proved to be the sports story of 2019 which again goes to show that when it comes to theatre and drama, there’s no event like the Masters.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
Will be teeing up for a 12th time at Augusta. 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, just 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.
Best Masters finish: 2nd (2012)
11 Masters appearances: 2019 (T29th), 2018 (T12th), 2017 (T41st), 2016 (T15th), 2015 (T19th), 2014 (T25th), 2013 (MC), 2012 (2nd), 2011 (MC), 2010 (MC), 2009 (MC)
This year will be his 11th appearance but it was when he was 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. That earned him a lifetime exemption to Augusta. He has missed the cut in four of the last six Masters and last year missed it by two shots after rounds of 77 and 72.
Best Masters finish: 1st (2011)
10 Masters appearances: 2019 (MC), 2018 (MC), 2017 (3rd), 2016 (MC), 2015 (T38th), 2014 (MC), 2013 (T25th), 2012 (T50th), 2011 (1st), 2010 (T30th)
Has a lifetime exemption to the tournament because of his win in 2008. The veteran turns 41 at the end of this year and will be teeing up at his 17th Masters. Last year he made the cut for the first time in six years and broke par at Augusta for the first time since 2013 when he closed with a round of 69 for a tie of 51st. He’s enjoyed a golf resurgence, having been named as the next Presidents Cup captain, succeeding Ernie Els.
Best Masters finish: 1st (2008)
16 Masters appearances: 2019 (T51st), 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)
Was the leading South African in the field last year, finishing 12th in his debut at Augusta. He shot rounds of 69, 69, 70 and 72 for a level-par score of 280, five behind Tiger Woods over 72 holes and earned an automatic entry for 2020, along with a cheque of $225 400
Best Masters finish: T12th (2019)
Makes his debut at Augusta because he won the 2019 John Deere Classic, a PGA Tour event that awards a full-point allocation for the season-ending Tour Championship. The 30-year-old slipped out of the top 100 in the World Rankingsat the end of last year, but will be looking to cash in at his first Masters appearance.
Also makes his debut at Augusta, having qualified because he was in the world’s top 50 published before the originally scheduled Masters Tournament at Week 11 (15 March 2020). This year the big-hitting 26-year-old reached a high of No 45 in the world.
ERIK VAN ROOYEN
The third South African to be making his debut at The Masters. The 30-year-old earned his ticket to Augusta on two fronts: being in the world’s top 50 at the end of 2019 (49th) and being in the top 50 in the rankings published before the originally scheduled Masters Tournament at Week 11 (15 March 2020). By the end of September he was still sitting in the world’s top 50 at No 47.
BEST SA PERFORMERS
2019 Justin Harding (T12th)
2018 Louis Oosthuizen (T12th)
2017 Charl Schwartzel (3rd)
2016 Louis Oosthuizen (T15th)
2015 Louis Oosthuizen (T19th)
2014 Louis Oosthuizen (25th)
2013 Tim Clark (T11th)
2012 Louis Oosthuizen (2nd)
2011 Charl Schwartzel (1st)
2010 Trevor Immelman (T14th)
2009 Tim Clark (T13th)
2008 Trevor Immelman (1st)
2007 Retief Goosen and Rory Sabbatini (T2nd)
2006 Tim Clark (2nd)
2005 Retief Goosen (T3rd)
2004 Ernie Els (2nd)
2003 Ernie Els (T6th)
2002 Retief Goosen (2nd)
2001 Ernie Els (T6th)
2000 Ernie Els (2nd)
1961, 1974, 1978: Gary Player (1st)