It has been 20 years since Sir Nick Faldo slipped on the Green Jacket for the last time and, for the English players at the top of the game, the quest for Augusta glory does not get any easier, says Bryce Ritchie
IRELAND’S golfers have done rather well for themselves in the last few years, with Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy combing to pick up nine majors in nine years. In that time, only Justin Rose (US Open, 2013) has been able to prop up the English flag at the top of a major championship leaderboard.
Making matters worse is the stark realisation that it is now 20 years since an Englishman won the Masters (it’s even longer for the Open Championship). Sir Nick Faldo’s crushing ‘defeat’ of Greg Norman at Augusta National in 1996 is never easily forgotten, and it never will be.
Back then, Norman had a six-shot lead going into the final day. Even now, it remains the finest example of a golfer capitulating under pressure - it’s only recently the Aussie has admitted that he ‘choked’. His closing 78 saw his lead disintegrate, leaving him five shots back in second after Faldo’s 67. Over the final few holes, The Shark’s performance was, in simple terms, hard to watch.
One American golf writer perhaps summed up the calamity best when he began his newspaper report with this opening gambit:
“To the great champions, they put up plaques. To Greg Norman, they put up tombstones.”
Harsh, but it’s unfortunately quite true.
Before Tiger Woods, Norman was every young golfer’s hero. It was impossile not to be spellbound watching him pound the golf course, complete with his trademark straw hat. More powerful than most, more physically imposing than most, and with a charm that his opposition could only dream of possessing, Norman was easily the biggest draw in the game post-Nicklaus and pre-Woods.
Watching that debacle unfold at Augusta National continues to make uneasy viewing even now but it is a necessary evil, actually, when looking back at what Faldo achieved. Some people forget that Masters victory book-ended the greatest playing career in European golf and it remains the last time an Englishman slipped on a Green Jacket.
His win came 12 months before Woods memorably burst on the scene (at the very same stage, incidentally). And with Woods now seemingly struggling to even peg it up at events, never mind win major championships, perhaps the door is ajar for an Englishman to walk right in?
Sadly, it’s not that straightforward. The struggle at the top of golf’s pecking order is very real indeed. Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day have amassed a combined seven majors in a relatively short space of time, and players such as Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson - two big American stars who have yet to win one of golf’s big four - could be seen as fighting for scraps. There’s also a flood of young US talent pouring onto the PGA Tour, and they love the spotlight.
So, where does that leave the talent of English golf?
Since ’96, there have been two English players who have made it to the top of the world rankings: Lee Westwood and Luke Donald. But neither has made the major grade as yet. Their job will not be any easier this year. It is arguably harder to win a major championship now than it was ten years ago - and that’s even with Tiger in his pomp. Tiger isn’t the problem these days. The fields in golf are much deeper now. “It’s really tough to win out here,” Jason Day famously said last year. And that was before he won a major.
Young players now hit the tour ‘ready to win’ rather than trying to play catch-up, a fact given credence by the number of first-time winners on tour last year and, most importantly, the number of players winning in their 20s. This season, for the first time in history, the first four events of the PGA Tour season were won by first-time winners.
The English lads have their work cut out but can, in some respects, take comfort from the fact that every player in the field has their work cut out now. The landscape of golf has changed massively since Faldo last won, and the list of players who will miss out on a Masters berth this year illustrates that fact. There has never been so much quality in the game. If anything, being an English golfer just got that little bit harder.
It’s certainly tough at the top.