British players seek to reestablish dominance
By Pete Iacobelli, Associated Press
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- There was a time not long ago when Britain's golfers ruled Augusta National like no other country. Now, the latest group of talented Brits is determined to end the empire's 17-year drought at the Masters.
England's Justin Rose ranks third in the world and countryman Luke Donald is No. 4. Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood give Britain four of the world's top 13 players, second only to the United States' six. And none of the British stars have broken through at the majors -- something they hope to change when the Masters starts Thursday.
All four have excelled in Europe's recent Ryder Cup triumphs and all four have contended on Augusta National. So doesn't it seem surprising none have yet to slip on the green jacket?
"Yes, simple answer," Poulter said Tuesday.
British golfers were unstoppable for a stretch, winning five Masters between 1988 and 1996. Scotland's Sandy Lyle got the ball rolling in 1988 before Nick Faldo won consecutive tournaments in 1989 and 1990. Ian Woosnam of Wales made it four in a row in 1991. Faldo won his third and final Masters in 1996, the recipient of Greg Norman's historic six-shot collapse in the final round.
That's when the winning stopped for British competitors.
"Nothing surprises me in golf anymore," said Donald, the former No. 1.
Donald has come close here twice before, tying for third behind Tiger Woods -- remember the hole out from the bunker on No. 16? -- in 2005 and then finishing fourth six years later when champion Charl Schwartzel ended his round with four straight birdies.
Donald believes fields have become stronger over time, meaning more golfers have the chance to rise up on a given week.
Poulter, a Ryder Cup hero at Medinah last September, has had two top 10 finishes here, including a seventh behind champion Bubba Watson last April. Poulter believes they simply haven't been good enough on this given week.
"I think the guys are disappointed, to be honest, that one of the guys would have expected to have come through by now " he said. "What's the reason for that? Don't know."
There are a couple of major theories, though.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have won half of the 16 Masters played since Faldo's final victory. Two South Africans have broken through in Trevor Immelman (2008) and Schwartzel two years ago. A European's last Masters win was in 1999 when Jose Maria Olazabal took his second championship.
Faldo slipped the green jacket on the shoulders of a young Woods in 1997 and Britain hasn't gotten it back since.
Rose, the world's highest-ranked Brit, has three top 11 finishes in seven previous Masters, including the past two years. He rose to eighth a year ago with a final-round 68 and he likes the way he's playing this year.
"So I feel like it is a course that I can win on," Rose said.
But Rose knows he's not alone in that belief. With its wide-open fairways and less punitive areas when you don't land in the short grass, big hitters can wind up and let it fly. Look throughout Thursday's pairings and there are any number of people like Watson, Rory McIlroy, Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson, Rose says, capable of moving on top.
"So I don't feel like I have any particular advantage over those guys," he said. "But yes, I do feel like it's a course that I can do well on."
Westwood, the oldest of the four top world-ranked Brits who turns 40 later this month, has had the most near misses at the Masters of all his countrymen. He held the second and third round leads in 2010 when Mickelson won and led after the opening round a year ago.
Westwood finished tied for third in 2012. He has struggled at times this year, but made the top 10 in his last event, the Houston Open, two weeks ago.
Donald thinks there's no rhyme or reason why one group or another has success or falters at an event. Golf is such a singlular mental game, he says, that it's often the least fragile player that week who have the best chances -- no matter what country they're from.
"Obviously there's a bunch of great and good European players right now," Donald said. "We certainly have as good a chance this year as any other" to win the Masters.