Australia has won an America’s Cup. Its sportsmen and women have brought home countless gold medals in Olympic sports that range from kayaking to the keiren, trapshooting to taekwondo, and archery to aerial skiing. Our boxers have won world titles, our tennis players have won all four of the Grand Slams, we’ve even managed — memorably — to get a speedskater over the line first in a Winter Olympics final.
Yet if we turn our attention to the genteel and gentlemanly pasttime of golf — a sport where Australians have always more than held their own — we discover a yawning gap on an otherwise gilt-edged sporting CV. And that gap concerns the tournament that will be played this week at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia — the US Masters — a championship that has been played for more than 70 years but as yet does not feature a winner with (Aust) beside his name.
Heavens knows, we’ve been close enough. Jack Newton finished second to Seve Ballesteros in 1980, Jim Ferrier was the bridesmaid in 1950 and, need we mention it, Greg Norman came up just short more times than we would care to recall, his heartbreak — and ours — being played out through bleary eyes on early-morning television punctuated by mind-numbing commercials.
Each year at about this time, Australia’s golf writers have a collective scratching of their heads and try to work out how this drought could stretch to three-quarters of a century. I mean, Queensland eventually won a Sheffield Shield, and Hicham El Guerrouj a 1500m Olympic gold medal.
Golf has always been one sport Australians have excelled at professionally and — unlike in tennis — they still do. Augusta is a course that seemingly plays into the Australians’ hands — with hard fairways, huge bunkers and the slipperiest of slippery greens — all the hallmarks of the courses they play at home. Indeed, Augusta was designed by Dr Alister MacKenzie, who had such an influence on designing several of the better layouts in Australia.
But, and it’s a big but because there is a certain Eldrick ‘Tiger’ Woods in the field, this year we have some sort of chance of breaking our Masters duck. Seven Australians will tee up on Friday morning (AEST) — Robert Allenby, Stuart Appleby, Aaron Baddeley, Geoff Ogilvy, Adam Scott, Nick O’Hern, Rod Pampling and Adam Scott — and, of them, five can be considered to be in excellent form: Scott, who won the US Tour event last week, pipping Appleby into second place, Ogilvy, Allenby and Baddeley have all had great starts to the year and will go into the tournament quietly fancying their chances. Only Pampling and O’Hern carry indifferent form into the week.
So best to put the new batteries into the alarm clock. Having waited this long, it would be a shame to miss out on the big moment now.
IT WAS 10 YEARS AGO this week that Tiger Woods won the Masters by 12 shots — a record — with a 72-hole score of 270, another record. He was, at 21, the youngest winner of that most famous of all sporting fashion accessories, the green jacket.
He was also, of course, an African-American, the first to win a major championship. It was supposed to be a seminal moment in the sport and reams of copy were written that Sunday about how his astonishing victory would herald a new dawn for the musty old game, and its acceptance of ethnic minorities.
But the evidence at home and abroad would suggest that little has changed in the past decade. Certainly, Woods was the last African-American to win his card to the US Tour in 1996. And no African-Americans have won their way on to the US women’s tour since 2000. Only Vijay Singh, a Fijian of Indian parentage, helps to provide some contrast to the sea of pallid vanilla skin on the fairways of the US Tour.
During that memorable week in 1997, Jack Nicklaus played a practice round with Woods on the Tuesday before the Masters and then came into the press tent for his traditional pre-tournament interview. In his now-famous declaration, Nicklaus said he had just seen the future of golf and its name was Tiger Woods. Woods, he said, would win more Masters titles than Nicklaus and Palmer combined, which is to say 11 or more. Those of us who were lucky enough to be there looked at each other wondering whether someone had spiked Jack’s peach cobbler during lunch in the clubhouse. But no, he said, he was deadly serious.
When Woods went out in the first round, accompanied by the old curmudgeon himself, defending champion Nick Faldo, and played the first nine holes in 40 strokes — four over par — again we all looked at each other in the press centre and realised that Nicklaus must indeed have succumbed to the early onset of dementia.
But, regaining his composure, Woods rallied with 30 on the back nine, followed by rounds of 66, 65 and 69 to completely blow away the field, and just as completely vindicate Jack’s bombshell assessment.
This week, Woods is listed as a 5/4 favourite among some bookmakers, an astonishing price considering the size and quality of the field. But who would back against him — except perhaps seven Australian players ready to create their own slice of history?