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The Ghosts of Augusta National: Why there are no certainties at the Masters

By: Golfshake Editor | Tue 05 Apr 2016 | Comments

Post by Golf Writer, Kieran Clark

It has arguably become the game’s most iconic symbol of achievement, a defining emblem of success, or the missing piece of an otherwise great career. But the famed Green Jacket remains the most tantalising of sporting prizes on the most teasing of golf courses.

For Jason Day, the world number one, and Rory McIlroy, the most prolific major champion of this decade, the Jacket has proven elusive. Both have contended at Augusta National in the past, the Australian previously recording a second and third place finish, with the Northern Irishman succumbing to the Sunday pressure during what was a character building experience in 2011.

These are two players with the obvious credentials to succeed on a course that was originally born from the collective minds of Bobby Jones and Dr Alister Mackenzie. Particularly in the case of McIlroy, the 26-year-old’s game appears to be ideally suited to the Georgia layout, with his long driving and towering ball flight equipped to both reduce the holes in length and unlock the often precarious pin positions that are perched on the most undulating and uncooperative of greens.

Although many preordained greats have been crowned in Georgia, there are those players whose measurements had prematurely been taken that ultimately failed to cross the line. Augusta was made for them, and it was only a matter of time – an all-too precious commodity – that was seemingly between them and the Jacket. But the hourglass can empty faster than seems fair.

Just ask Tom Weiskopf, one of the finest swingers of his generation, who was frequently compared to Jack Nicklaus and seemed destined to join his fellow Ohioan at the annual Champions Dinner. The winner of the 1973 Open at Royal Troon did manage to etch his name into the record books, however, but regrettably as a four-time runner-up, most notably in a cruel loss to the Golden Bear at the 1975 Masters, which has gone down in history as one of the finest.

Also one-shot behind the eventual six-time champion that day was Johnny Miller, winner of a U.S. Open at Oakmont and an Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. When he drove down Magnolia Lane that April, the Californian had secured 11 PGA Tour titles in 15 months. He was ready to achieve redemption, having bogeyed two of his last three holes to lose four years earlier. But that story didn’t transpire for the 27-year-old, nor did it in 1981 when he finished two back of Tom Watson.

No one has been associated with heartbreak at the Masters more than Greg Norman, who was ranked the best player in the world for 331 weeks during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Having come fairly close to winning on his debut as a 26-year-old, the tall and striking Australian failed to deny Jack Nicklaus a dramatic victory at the age of 46 with a disastrous approach on the 18th, while a year later Augusta-native Larry Mize improbably chipped in to snatch the jacket away from the Great White Shark.

In 1989, Norman bogeyed the last to fall one-shot out of a playoff with Nick Faldo and Scott Hoch, despite having birdied the three previous holes. This all could have sunk the future chances of a lesser mind, and for a number of years the Queenslander did disappear from genuine contention at Augusta. Perhaps he had taken one too many damaging blows on that course.

But he managed to rebound with a relatively distant third-place finish in 1995, having shot 68 in each of the last three rounds. Witnessing Ben Crenshaw achieve a fairytale victory at the age of 43, maybe Norman began to believe that dreams really could still come true for him at Augusta.

He carried that impetus into the following April’s showpiece, producing a stunning opening round of 63 to edge ahead of the field. It was a clear advantage that he would not relent until the Sunday. Leading by a seemingly insurmountable six-shots from of his great rival Faldo, the stage was set for an exorcism of prior demons and the clinching of a title that no one would begrudge him for.

What has always been clear is that Augusta National – like any formidable predator – has a beauty that masks an inherent cruelty lying under the surface. Each hole, with those devilish greens that can be more damaging than the immaculate water hazards, threatens a player with potential disaster, but offers the carrot of possible greatness that can often prove deceptively enticing.

On that day, the National viciously punished the anxiety and indecisiveness of Norman. With the Englishman meticulously picking his moments to progress, the two-time Open champion collapsed around the turn and found his worst nightmares realised. The harder he tried, the worse it got. There was a palpable sense of regret from the patrons in attendance on that fateful Sunday, who had clearly felt that the 41-year-old had been tortured enough by their beloved course.

Even the likes of three-time runner up Tom Kite, who agonisingly failed to join the pantheon of Texan greats with a Green Jacket, regular challenger around the millennium David Duval, and Davis Love III, who was born one day after his father competed at the Masters in 1964, could have been left thinking that they were owed something at Augusta. But they had their chances. As did Ernie Els, who saw the Jacket prised from his grasp by Phil Mickelson in 2004.

Former champions have also seen their luck quickly dry out at Augusta. Seve Ballesteros could (and possibly should) have won at least another two, if not three or four Masters titles, not least in 1986 when his water-bound approach to the 15th opened the door for Nicklaus. Record-setting 1976 winner Raymond Floyd was another, throwing away a lead in 1990, while Tom Watson double-bogeyed the 18th to lose to Ian Woosnam just a year later.

Even the absent Tiger Woods – once predicted by Jack Nicklaus to win ten – has in more recent years found the National an altogether unforgiving playground, failing to add to his haul of Masters titles since a dramatic fourth victory in 2005. For all Augusta is associated with the rewarding of swashbuckling and aggressive play, the tournament history is strewn with the shattered hopes of those who were lured into trying to bite off more than they could chew.

There is such a deep past and familiarity to the course that it is almost impossible for a player to block out the enormity of the surroundings from his mind. They have quite literally grown up watching it, were perhaps even initially inspired to take up the game by it, and though regular visitors are gifted with the opportunity to map out the holes and increase their understanding each year, with experience comes the often unshakable knowledge of what can go wrong.

Day and McIlroy may have the benefit of time on their side, but the longer it takes for them to win, the harder every round of contention will become. In the case of the Ulsterman, he will return to Augusta each April for the rest of his tenure in the game consciously aware that it is the one last hurdle between him and the career Grand Slam. That last quadrant can often be the most tormenting, as Mickelson and Sam Snead discovered at the U.S. Open.

There are no certainties at the Masters. Just ask the ghosts of Augusta National. They know.

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