The year is 1994, and a fresh-faced young South African named Ernie Els is making his first trip to The Masters. After Els opened with a 74, a second-round 67 has the future U.S. and British Open champion only two shots off the halfway lead, a fact that nevertheless remains something of a mystery to the Augusta National patrons.
Seeing a familiar face, Neels and Hettie Els, Ernie's parents, approach a journalist.
"Do they try to keep foreign boys off the scoreboard here?" asks Mrs. Els, not necessarily rhetorically.
"It's only three letters," Neels says.
"No, no," the writer says, laughing. "It's nothing like that. I've been coming here since 1972, and back then they were unhappy if Jack [Nicklaus] or Arnie [Palmer] didn't finish first.
"These days, though, they're grateful if the winner speaks English."
The joke stemmed -- albeit tangentially, given Els' African roots -- from the unprecedented level of success enjoyed by European players in the preceding 14 Masters tournaments. An event that once had been the almost exclusive preserve of Americans was suddenly and routinely identifying a group of richly talented and accented individuals, what became known as Europe's "Big Five."
Before 1980, the only overseas winner of the green jacket was three-time champion Gary Player of South Africa; since that year, golf's most coveted garment had been won an amazing eight times by those five men from the Old World. Three more wins -- and one more Master golfer from across the ocean -- would be added before the end of the century. The language barrier wasn't the only thing being trampled in the rush. It was, for the quintessential American tournament, a culture shock of seismic proportions.
But that was then. As they have always done, things change in sports, and Europe's domination of golf's so-called rite of spring has, it would appear, sprung something of a leak. Since José Maria Olazábal of Spain won the 1999 Masters, his second in five years -- adding another year next to his name on a cosmopolitan and multilingual roll containing his compatriot Seve Ballesteros (1980 and '83), Germany's Bernhard Langer (1985 and '93), Sandy Lyle of Scotland (1988), Englishman Nick Faldo (1989, '90 and '96) and Ian Woosnam from Wales (1991) -- only one European, England's Luke Donald last year, has managed even a top-three finish. Indeed, in that span, a mere seven Euros have made it into the top 10, although some have done so more than once.
So what has happened? Why is it that The Masters, even as the Europeans continue to dominate the biennial Ryder Cup battles with their American opponents, is proving to be a major too far for men supposedly well-suited to the intricacies of a course Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie originally modeled on the subtly creative and strategically imaginative questions posed by the Old Course at St. Andrews? Which, last time one looked, was still located in Scotland. Which, last time one looked, was still a constituent part of Europe.
The answers are, as you'd expect, many and varied. For one thing, the Augusta National course on which Olazábal prevailed in 1999 no longer exists. Longer -- much longer -- and with semi-rough now bordering the previously unburdened fairways, Mackenzie's masterpiece has been touched up more than a little. Significantly, never before has it more closely resembled the more prosaic and one-dimensional challenges of a U.S. Open or PGA Championship -- events no European has won since 1970 and 1930, respectively.
"The changes to the course have taken a lot of the Europeans out of the equation," Irishman Paul McGinley contends. "It's a long-hitter's course now. If you look at most of the Euros who won there more than once -- Faldo, Ollie, Langer -- all of them won using course management and a magical short game. That's not enough to win at Augusta anymore."
Such an assertion certainly finds plenty of support elsewhere. "I've never checked the statistics," admits Donald, like McGinley a relatively diminutive member of golf's elite. "But I think, in general, the Europeans don't hit the ball as far as the Americans. And that would certainly hurt you playing the modern Augusta."
The numbers bear Donald out. From Langer's '85 victory through Ollie's '99 win, the nine European wins were by players who averaged but 262.54 yards off the tee, and their average driving distance rank for the week was 30th in the field.
There are, however, those who take a less sympathetic view on the Europeans' recent drought. "I don't accept that changes to the course is the reason why Europeans are not winning The Masters like they used to," says Langer, whose two wins are supplemented by six other top-10 finishes at Augusta. "I never hit it as long as people like Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman, but you find your way to compensate. That's what we all did, the likes of myself, José Maria and Nick. If you're good enough, you find a way to win The Masters, and that's what the young Europeans with plenty of qualities like Luke have to do. They have to work out their own way to beat the likes of Tiger and win the green jacket."
Whether one or more will do so remains to be seen. But until they do, a further question begs to be answered: Is the modern generation of Europeans just not good enough to win The Masters or, indeed, any major title? Not since Paul Lawrie's unlikely British Open victory at Carnoustie in 1999 has a Euro won at the game's highest level.
"The World Ranking doesn't lie," says Padraig Harrington of Ireland. "We just haven't been good enough over the last seven years. I think we've had one or maybe two players in the world's top 10 during that time and hardly anyone in the top five. When Europe was winning The Masters practically every year, the top players dominated the top-five placings."
There is some truth to Harrington's assertion. Despite Olazábal's two Masters titles, the very best European golfer over the last decade and a bit has been Colin Montgomerie. The temperamental Scot has famously come up short in multiple majors, and that, perversely, could have adversely affected his slightly less-talented mates from across the pond. Thomas Björn, three times a runner-up in golf's biggest events, is just one who feels Monty's celebrated failures might have had a subconsciously negative effect on other Europeans. "If Colin can't get it done, how can we?" seems to have been the prevalent attitude.
Recent European failure is not without irony, either. During their period of dominance, the European stars were outnumbered heavily in all three American majors. For example, when Ballesteros pulled on his first green jacket in 1980, only three European professionals were in the field. And not until Olazábal's win in '94 did Europe's invitation list stretch into double figures, with last year's 20-strong contingent a record.
So, as Europe's numbers have increased, the players' success rate has dwindled, a fact that only adds credence to the argument that, instead of a small group of great players, Europe today has a larger-than-ever band of very good players. Such depth has Ryder Cup advantages, but success in the highly competitive arenas that are the major championships relies more on luck and good timing. Especially when three of the four are played "away from home."
"It just goes in cycles," maintains Swedish native and Florida resident Jesper Parnevik. "In the '80s, Europe had the best players in the world, with Seve, Woosie, Lyle -- they won everything, everywhere. It was as surprising as Tiger winning now. I don't think it's anything to do with being European or not."
McGinley, ever the optimist, is in tune with Parnevik. "If you look at the history of European golf, it's one of ebbs and flows," he insists. "Five years ago, everyone was talking about the crisis in English golf because they had only one player in the top 100. Now there are seven or eight of them up there, all excellent players.
"I truly think we are on the verge of another age where Europeans win majors in bunches. We're just waiting for one of us to knock one off, and then it will be like the '80s all over again."
If so, Masters patrons might want to round up those old and almost forgotten pronunciation guides. "Joe Marie Olliebubble," "Steve Ballesteros" (OK, perhaps not), "Bernard Longer" and others might soon be on the way back to a leaderboard near you.
Ernie's mum, for one, will be delighted.
John Huggan is the European correspondent for Golf World magazine.