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Back On Top
Alan Shipnuck
April 19, 1999
With the winner, four others in the top 14 and the low amateur, Europeans again dominated Augusta
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April 19, 1999

Back On Top

With the winner, four others in the top 14 and the low amateur, Europeans again dominated Augusta

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He was chubby and a bit sunburned, his hairline damp from all the excitement. Every so often he would peek out from under the famous oak tree behind the Augusta National clubhouse to cast a nervous glance at the oversized scoreboard fronting the 18th green. It had been almost an hour since Lee Westwood had finished a grueling day on the course, but the pull of the scoreboard kept him on the hill, waiting for the numbers to change. "I'm here to root for Ollie," he said. As the sun was setting on the 63rd Masters, José María Olazábal's birdie at the 16th hole was finally posted, all but clinching his victory. Westwood, the 25-year-old Englishman who had been tied for the lead going into Sunday's back nine, responded with a gap-toothed grin. For a man who had just lost the most important tournament of his life, he seemed awfully happy. "European pride," Westwood said by way of explanation, and who could blame him? Indeed, this was a Masters to set the flags waving, a show of strength by three generations of European golfers.

The Europeans took low amateur as well as low pro. Sergio García, the baby-faced 19-year-old from Castellón, Spain, lived up to his billing as a can't-miss talent in his first Masters. Westwood wasn't able to survive the crucible of the back nine, but his tie for sixth was his best showing in a major championship, and he proclaimed that one day soon he would be leaving with a green jacket. Olazábal's Scottish contemporary, 35-year-old Colin Montgomerie, was also forecasting future victory for himself after finishing 11th, his second straight strong showing at Augusta. In all, the vastly outnumbered Europeans placed five players in the top 14, including long-forgotten warriors Bernhard Langer, 41, and Ian Woosnam, 41, both of whom found the form that had once made them terrors at Augusta.

After dominating the Masters in the 1980s and the first half of the '90s, the Europeans had won only one of the last four. This wouldn't have been a big deal were it not for the spectacular demise of their core players—the so-called Big Five of Langer, Woosnam, 42-year-old Seve Ballesteros, 41-year-old Nick Faldo and 41-year-old Sandy Lyle, who have won a combined nine green jackets. Faldo, his swing and personal life a mess, has become an international joke; Ballesteros has been driven batty by an acute case of the driving yips; Lyle has suffered from burnout and lousy mechanics; Langer and Woosnam, meanwhile, appear to have been softened up by the complacency that comes with a comfortable middle age. The Masters has always been golf's ultimate proving ground, and with the Americans' recent victories and abundance of young talent, the balance of power was tipping toward the U.S., even with the Yanks' inexplicable collapses in the last two Ryder Cups. Last week all that changed.

Olazábal, 33, has emerged as one of the game's dominant players and personalities. Already, Ollie seems comfortable being the Europeans' keynote player, saying after his victory, "I hope this will be a boost for the European tour and will give momentum to our Ryder Cup team." Increasingly, Montgomerie is looking like an able wing-man. He broke through at the Masters last year with a tie for eighth, and he proved that was no fluke with his fine finish this year. "I'm contending, and that's what it's all about," Montgomerie said on Sunday. "I feel I've got the talent and the guts to go forward. I just need some good fortune for a change. The more you play here, the more you realize that you have to be lucky. Patient is a horrible word, but that's what I've got to be."

The same goes for thirtysomething stalwarts Per-Ulrik Johansson, who in the last three Masters has finished 12th, 12th and 24th, and Jesper Parnevik and Darren Clarke, both of whom missed the cut this year after making noise in '98. But if the Europeans are to extend their dominance, they will need the continued development of a diverse group of players in their 20s, of whom Westwood is the unquestioned leader. He arrived in Augusta ranked seventh in the world. He had a series of solid showings in the majors behind him, although in two previous Masters he had finished no better than 24th. Westwood opened this year with rounds of 75 and 71 before moving to within five shots of the lead with a third-round 68. "Where to miss it, and where not to miss it, that's all there is to this course," Westwood said last Saturday. "It's tricky out there, and I'm starting to get it. Today I played very conservatively and was rewarded."

Trying to make up ground on Sunday, Westwood attacked the front nine relentlessly, making four birdies to move to five under. When he stepped to the 10th tee he was in a four-way deadlock for the lead, with Olazábal, Greg Norman and Steve Pate. "They always say this tournament starts on the back nine on Sunday, but you don't realize how true that is until you stand on top of the hill at number 10," Westwood said. "That view makes you feel sick. My stomach was in knots."

Westwood dropped four shots over the next three holes, without hitting any terrible shots. He rebounded with two birdies down the stretch to shoot 71, one of only seven subpar rounds on a brutal final day. "It was a brilliant experience," Westwood said. "I enjoyed every minute of it. You're not going to win this tournament until you've gained the proper knowledge, and today I got a lot of it. I will win here."

The Masters didn't have a European champion in its first 46 years, until Ballesteros kicked down the door with his overwhelming wire-to-wire victory in 1980. He won again in '83, and in '85 Langer broke through. Three years later the Europeans began a streak that set the golf world on its ear, winning six of seven Masters from '88 to '94. "It became like the Super Bowl, and they were the NFC," says Lee Janzen, who finished tied for 14th this year. "It got to be a mind-set. They expected to win, so they did. It was pretty embarrassing for us."

Much of this European success can be traced to what amounts to a home field advantage. The European courses and their wild and woolly tour encourage a style of play perfectly suited to Augusta. "This place is like links golf—hard and fast and fun to play," says Lyle, who tied for 48th this year. "The course allows you to express your talents in a different way than the other major championship courses in this country."

Which would explain why Langer and Woosnam have abysmal records in the U.S. Open and PGA Championship but play well at Augusta. Langer's 66 on Friday was a career best at the Masters and the second-lowest round of the week, and it propelled him to an 11th-place tie. Woosnam challenged for the lead on Sunday but wound up 14th. Still, it was his best Masters finish since he won the tournament in 1991. Perhaps the relative success of these erstwhile Fab Fivers can fire up their contemporaries, as was the case so many years ago. Says Lyle, "Prior to my victory at Augusta, I saw Seve and Bern-hard win there. To that point I had a similar record, if not better, so their winning gave me confidence that I could win, too."

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