It is a tale of two countries.
On a Monday practice round in decidedly British weather, two colonials, Australian Jason Day and Canadian Mike Weir, were strolling up the 14th hole of Augusta National talking about, of all things, hockey. Weir had his arms wide to show Day the differences in ice size that make the game of hockey played in Canada unlike the game played in Europe.
He could easily have been describing the 50-yard distance between where his tee shot landed and where Day’s mightier drive came to a stop. No verbal explanation was required to explain the differences between the slight Canadian’s game and the one played by the tall, muscular Australian.
In fact, the two Commonwealth countries are experiencing similarly disparate golf fortunes heading into the 2014 Masters, which begins here on Thursday.
Canada and Australia waited a long, long time to break through here at Augusta National. When Adam Scott defeated Angel Cabrera in a playoff last year, one Australian publication claimed that “the final frontier for Australian sport had been crossed.” Scott became the first Aussie to win the Masters.
Day, meanwhile, was third last year, and fellow Australian Marc Leishman tied for fourth. Day and Scott tied for second in 2011.
Scott this year hopes to become the first player to successfully defend his Masters title since Tiger Woods in 2002. Woods, a four-time winner and perennial favourite, is not competing in the first major of the season following back surgery, giving both Scott and Day (and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, too) the opportunity – with a top finish this week – to dislodge Woods as No. 1 in the official world golf rankings.
Day believes Scott’s victory had an enormous effect on the mental attitude of his fellow Australian professionals: “If he can do it,” a confident Day says, “I can do it as well.” So cocky is that country heading to the first tee this week that one Down Under daily ran a story headlined “Ten Reasons Why an Aussie Will Win the Masters.”
It is being called the “Australian Invasion.” The day before Weir and Day played that practice round, another Aussie, Matt Jones, made a dramatic chip-in on the first playoff hole to win the Shell Houston Open. That victory enabled Jones to become the seventh Australian to qualify for this year’s Masters, joining Scott, Day, Leishman, recent winners John Senden and Steven Bowditch, and Oliver Goss, a 19-year-old amateur. Australians have won four of the past eight events on the PGA Tour.
“It’s just awesome,” says Day. “Australian golf is in a good place right now.”
Not so much for Canadian golf. Weir became the first left-hander and first Canadian to win the Masters back in 2003, but the following year he opened with a 79 and missed the cut. He has struggled mightily in recent years – in the past five Masters, his best finish was a T-43 in 2010.
Canada, meanwhile, has two golfers at Augusta. Its best hopes now lie with Graham DeLaet of Weyburn, Sask., a 32-year-old late-bloomer who arrived late in Augusta and will play a practice round Tuesday with Weir. Weir says DeLaet, who has an excellent long game, “could easily contend” in his first time playing the storied course. But only once in recent history, however, has a first-timer (Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979) ever won this event.
When Weir won 11 years ago, he ended decades of Canadian frustration at this tournament. Back in 1969, George Knudson tied for second, and Stan Leonard had four top-10 finishes in the 1950s.
This paled, however, in comparison to Australia’s frustration. Greg Norman, golf’s Great White Shark, had the perfect game for Augusta and might have been a multiple winner were it not for the worst imaginable luck. He came up one stoke short and tied for second in 1986 when 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus closed with a remarkable 65 to win his sixth green jacket.
Norman lost a playoff to Larry Mize in 1987 when Mize holed an improbable 140-foot chip for birdie on the second playoff hole.
And Norman came second yet again, in 1996, when he blew a six-stroke lead in the final round by shooting 78. England’s Nick Faldo played brilliantly, shot 67 and beat Norman by five strokes.
No wonder that, a year ago when Scott won, he immediately said, “This is for Greg – because part of it absolutely belongs to him.”
With sirens sounding a storm warning, Day and Weir’s practice round was cut short as rain began to fall. Weir counted himself satisfied with his play, but no one pretends that his game is in great shape. He plays here as a past champion, and remains on the PGA Tour on a one-year exemption awarded him for career winnings.
He’s fully aware that there are Canadians back home who wonder why he bothers, week after week, when nothing seems to be working. “I don’t pay attention to it,” he says. “I still love the game. I still love the practice, and I’m eager to get out there and practice.
“There’s always going to be people who are negative. And I guess when you’re struggling it’s easy to jump on that bandwagon.”
As for that bandwagon headed in the other direction – Australians winning golf tournaments, Australians out to become No. 1 in the world – it’s not so easy to jump on that one.
It’s simply too full at the moment.
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