Luke Donald, Justin Rose and Paul Casey will all have their eyes on US Masters glory, but who stands the best chance of following in the footsteps of Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Sandy Lyle?
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Every time the US Masters comes round, I look back nostalgically at the late eighties and early nineties when three players put the Great before British golf, conquering the foreign fields of Augusta National on their way to the top of the game.
Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Sandy Lyle were the talented triumvirate, taking UK golf to unprecedented heights. Lyle, a hardy perennial of the top ten, was the first to flourish on the major stage with his win at the 1985 Open Championship. But it was in 1988 that his most notable victory arrived when he broke the foreign stranglehold on The Masters, becoming the first Brit to don the famous Green Jacket. Faldo and Woosnam, both born within eight months of Lyle, were green with envy at their peer's achievement.
However, envy doesn't have to be a negative, sapping emotion. It can also act as an inspiration. And both players took it as such. Faldo (who went on to become the greatest British golfer of all-time) soon emulated Lyle at the 1989 Masters and even went one better, retaining his crown in 1990. Woosnam, for his part, got the hang of things the following April in a career year which also saw the wee Welshman claim top spot in the world rankings. The trio had fed off one another's successes and put our little island back at the major table.
British golf fans never had it so good and didn't dare dream of another golden generation. It just seemed greedy. Until one windswept Sunday afternoon in 1998 when a fresh-faced, home-grown amateur hold a dramatic shot on the 18th at Royal Birkdale for a tie for fourth place. That sensation was a 17-year-old Justin Rose. He was the future, the heir apparent, the next big thing... He promptly went on to miss his first 21 cuts and lose his Tour card. False dawns didn't come more glaring.
His youth and ability could not be dismissed so easily, though, and Rose quickly refocused, reclaimed his card and began climbing the rankings, all the way to European No.1 in 2007. He subsequently moved to the States, where he has added four more wins (all of them inside the past 20 months), the latest coming at the WGC at Doral a fortnight back. All of which means he has now conquered every tier bar the highest of them all: the majors.
Rose's highest finish in a major is still that fourth place at Birkdale. Yet he remains a mercurial player who often saves his best for the toughest tracks. He has all the shots, the trouble is they seldom come together for the four rounds of tournament golf. When the planets do align, however, they are allied to his one constant, a beautiful putting stroke, which makes him near enough unbeatable. The major venue which prizes big hitting and putting above all others is Augusta. Rose has already proved the point, leading here in 2007 before winding up fifth. He was on the cusp on contention again last year and is one of the few who can handle these linoleum-like greens. He's 36.0 to triumph this time.
But the ultimate Dickie Deadeye with flat-stick is Luke Donald 16.5, whose short-game proficiency was again in evidence at the weekend when some clutch putting separated him from a four-man play-off at Copperhead. Donald's first title of the season reclaimed the No.1 ranking which Rory McIlroy had recently stolen and you can have nothing but admiration for the Englishman. He has maximised his skills like no-one else among the elite, but is still portrayed as a caretaker manager living on borrowed time while the board appoint a more accomplished star.
The powers that be at The Masters have certainly been trying their hardest to stop him. Via a prolonged and uninspired method of course extension, Augusta now stands at a whopping 7,500 yards from its professional tips, stacking the deck against shorter hitters like Donald. Still, when the course runs firm and his putting is on (as it was last year when he tied for fourth and again in 2005 when third), you can always make a case for him.
One man for whom those extensions hold no terrors is Paul Casey 170.00. Possessed of Popeye biceps and precision short iron-play, Casey has long been earmarked as a future major champion, particularly at Augusta where he has registered three top-11s since his debut sixth in 2004. Like Rose and Donald, Casey is a multiple worldwide winner but has only found sporadic form the past couple of years - his last win coming at the Volvo Champions event in early 2011.
Emotional dislocation off the fairways (a painful divorce) was compounded by bodily dislocation on them (his shoulder, snowboarding). Casey finally returned to tournament play at Doral and though he finished down the field, he did shoot a promising 68. His competitive juices are flowing again and he now has the focus and physical frame to concentrate on his golf. The fruits of his labours may not ripen in time for April, but he is no forlorn hope for the coming year.
Rose, Donald and Casey grew up watching Faldo, Lyle and Woosnam blossom amid the Augusta Dogwoods. They are no less talented and have time on their side (each still in his early 30s). All that is missing from their CVs is a major. An individual stroke of inspiration could fan their collective fires.
As Lyle and Co proved, it just takes one Green Jacket. Then the others follow suit.