Aussies in search of first Masters win
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It wasn't supposed to have come to this. Greg Norman should have already won at least two Masters. A nation that had 76 PGA Tour wins since 1983 and 15 major championships, including nine British Opens, could achieve everything in the game but win a green jacket.
On paper it's the second-best pro golfing nation in the world after the U.S., but it has never earned the right to serve Vegemite, Lamington and meat pies at the champion's dinner.
For the people from Down Under, it's painful every time TV highlights are aired of Norman's blown 6-shot lead at the 1996 Masters.
So on Sunday afternoon at the 2011 Masters, Jason Day and Adam Scott finally had a chance to heal this old sore. One of them was going to finally win the Masters. But Charl Schwartzel had other plans. His four closing birdies left him 2 shots clear of Day and Scott, who finished in a tie for second at 12 under par.
"Look, I hit one bad shot on Sunday, and that was on 15," Scott said on Monday. "I just got beaten last year. It was just good golf, great golf, and I don't feel like I lost. But if you're going to lose, I'd rather lose like that."
Day had started to think about winning the Masters coming up the 72nd hole. What would it be like to become the first Australian Masters champion? This was his first Masters and only his second appearance in a major championship. He wasn't supposed to be in contention. There were bigger-named Australian players like Aaron Baddeley and Geoff Ogilvy who should have been leading their country's efforts.
"I've won plenty of tournaments before, but to birdie the last two holes in front of a lot of people around the world and under a lot of pressure, obviously no Australian has ever won the Masters before, so there's a lot of pressure on mine and Adam's shoulders there to win," Day said. "And just to birdie those last two holes was just mind-blowing for me."
Both Day and Scott look at an Australian Masters winner in historical terms. For them it's the last hurdle in a golf-crazy country with a rich sporting tradition.
"I think it's just a coincidence that it has not happened," Scott said. "One year someone is going to get across the line. To be the first would be incredible for an Australian, because not only would you be the Masters champion, but in Australia, there would be that little asterisk next to your name of the first, finally.
"It's one of those sporting hurdles that no Australian has gotten over, and it may be one of the last ones for the sports that we play in our country, after Cadel Evans winning Tour de France last year."
There are six Australians in the field this week, including Bryden Macpherson, the 2011 British Amateur champion. Scott and Day lead a group of Aussie pros that includes Baddeley, Ogilvy and John Senden, who has been the most consistent of the bunch with three top-10s this season on the PGA Tour.
Scott, who has scaled back his schedule in 2012 to stay fresher, missed his first two events of the year to get over tonsillitis and has played in only three events, with his best finish of the year a tie for 13th at Doral. Though he nearly won here last year, he's not surprised to be coming in slightly under the radar.
"I don't feel too much pressure at all. I'm certainly probably not considered one of the favorites," Scott said. "There are a lot of other guys who have been playing very well so far this year.
"But I'm playing well myself. My game is in great shape. I haven't played that much, but this will be a good week to start posting some results. I think I take a lot of confidence out of last year in how I played the golf course and how I played on Sunday on the back nine in particular. So I'll be looking to draw on that experience and hopefully keep that momentum going."
Day posted 10 top-10s last season, including seconds at both the Masters and the U.S. Open. With that stellar year, the 24-year-old Dallas resident placed himself firmly within that group of young 20-somethings along with Rory McIlroy and Webb Simpson who were going to challenge the dominance of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. But so far in 2012, Day hasn't played consistently well.
"It's a very thin line between winning a tournament and making the cut, because you know, a few bounces go your way, the momentum starts rolling your way, you hole a few putts, you put yourself in contention," Day said. "And then when you're in contention, you know, you only have to just stick around, stick around, stick around for Sunday, and then maybe hole a couple birdie putts coming down the homestretch and you might win."
Stick around. That's what he'll need to do come Sunday if he wants to become the first Australian Masters winner.
"I think this week, I've just got to focus on my own game and not worry about anything else, not worry about the outcome of what could happen if I do win," Day said. "If I have a chance to win, I've just got to focus on what I need to do out there."
As Scott said on Monday, it's just a matter of time before an Australian wins the Masters. If it's not this year, it will certainly come down the road. Any one of these six Australians would like to be the one to break up a Sunday afternoon date on the first tee between Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy in the final group.
"If you're out there driving a car, you don't want to focus on the person driving next to you and see what they are doing. You have to focus on what you need to do and you have to drive your own car," Day said.
"I think that's what a lot of the guys five, six, seven years ago were caught up in what [Tiger] was doing and not themselves."
Yet come Sunday, if Day is walking down the 72nd hole with a green jacket in his grasp, he'll be driving his car for all of Australia.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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2012 champion: Bubba Watson
Course: Augusta National Golf Club
Where: Augusta, Ga.
Yardage, par: 7,435 yards, par-72
Past champions: Complete list