English masters flying high at Augusta

The Masters

The English Masters challenge has never been stronger – with a record 11 of them in the field. Perhaps Danny Willett could help one of his countrymen into the Green Jacket, writes Dan Murphy.

Only two English masters, to date, have slipped into the Green Jacket.

And when Nick Faldo won his first and second Masters titles, in 1989 and 1990, he was the only son of St George in the field.

There were 20 years between Faldo’s third win and that of Danny Willett 12 months ago, but the law of averages would suggest the wait will not be so long until the next English Masters champion.

A record-breaking 11 Englishmen are in the field this week – out of a total of 93, bearing in mind that Dustin Johnson didn’t make it to the first tee – and at the end of the first round the majority of them were in the top 30.

Hearteningly, that included the defending champion, who recovered from being three over after two holes to post a highly respectable 73. The highlight for Willett was an eagle three at 13.

Going into the second day, the tournament’s third favourite, according to the bookies, is Justin Rose, the owner of an exceptional Augusta record in recent years.

Five times in the last six years he has finished inside the top 15 and he is ideally positioned here to go one better than in 2015 when he and Phil Mickelson broke all kinds of scoring records yet still finished behind Jordan Spieth.

English masters

Rose reckoned that he “didn’t miss a shot for the first 12 holes” and his only disappointment was that he wasn’t five or six under par. In the 2013 US Open champion’s long game we trust – the question is whether his putting will be up to the job when he needs it most.

Of a similar vintage, and also the owner of a strong Masters record, is Paul Casey. Sixth and fourth in the last two years, he said he “feels like a rock star” when walking the fairways of Augusta. Sure enough, he made few mistakes on the opening day on his way to a reassuringly comfortable 72.

Yet it remains the case that he can point to just a single win on the PGA Tour, back in 2009, after close to 15 years playing full time in the United States. A Green Jacket would go a long way to putting that right.

Completing the trio of English perennials on the Augusta leaderboard is Lee Westwood. Received wisdom used to have it that this was the major to which his game was least suited. Not any more. As recently as last year, he was runner up and despite a poor start yesterday, normal service was soon resumed.

His back nine was a veteran’s masterclass – pars through Amen Corner then five straight birdies starting at the 13th.

English masters

At the other end of the experience spectrum are the likes of Andy Sullivan and Matt Fitzpatrick.

Some thought their chastening experience at the Ryder Cup last autumn, when they failed to win a point between them, would hold them back. Yet here they are, back on American soil in the first major since Hazeltine, on the first page of the leaderboard.

So too is another of 2016’s Ryder Cup rookies, Chris Wood, who quietly assembled what looked like being a level-par round of his own until successive late bogeys resulted in a 74. He remains handily placed though.

Strength in numbers then, and a very different story to the Ryder Cup as recently as 2002 when the only Englishman in Team Europe was the indefatigable Westwood.

Who knows, maybe this time he will be the last one standing come Sunday evening – and one English Masters champion could present another with that precious jacket.

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