Commentary

English relishes his first Masters

Augusta isn't foreign to 24-year-old Harris English entering his Masters debut

Updated: April 5, 2014, 2:04 PM ET
By Farrell Evans | ESPN.com

 

After Bubba Watson slipped into the green jacket at the 2012 Masters, he thanked his Georgia Bulldog supporters who had encouraged him during his march to victory.

Watson had been on the Georgia golf team. And his victory in Augusta, 95 miles from Georgia's Athens campus, was a proud win for the school and state.

Harris English was not in the field at Augusta National that Easter Sunday, but he knew that he wanted to be the next former Bulldog to don the green jacket.

Then a tour rookie, the Thomasville, Ga. native had almost earned an invitation to the Masters via the Honda Classic, where he played in the final group on Sunday with Rory McIlroy.

That afternoon in south Florida, he fell out of contention with a 77, but his appearance on the leaderboard was both a sign of greatness to come and a lesson in how much work he needed to do to become one of the tour's elite players.

Two years later, the 24-year-old English has a very good chance of becoming the next Georgia alum to win the green jacket, as he will make his first start in the Masters this year after two wins in 2013.

"It's been quite the whrlwind from just getting on the PGA Tour two years ago to making my way up and winning a couple of times," said English, who won the 2007 Georgia Amateur. "Early last year I was sitting around trying to figure out how I was going to get into the Masters and World Golf Championship events.

"The Masters is just a magical place, especially when you grow up in Georgia. It's going to be surreal actually standing out there playing golf in the tournament. It's the pinnacle of golf."

For the last two years, English has worked very hard to reach this summit.

In recent years, few players have been more heralded coming of college than English. In the summer of 2011, after graduating from Georgia, he won the Web.Com Tour's Nationwide Children's Hospital Invitational as an amateur. Then he easily made it through Q-school that fall. Long-hitting,  6-foot-3, 185 pounds, he was the prototypical modern tour player.

But he still needed some polish.

"Harris has learned to handle his body and emotions better on the course," said Mike Taylor, his swing coach. "He's getting into situations on Sundays where he's playing with the better players and he's seeing how they do it."

Taylor said that English also has become a more complete shot-maker. When English first came on the tour, he relied almost exclusively on the fade. Now he can confidently fade and draw the ball, which allows him to attack more pins.

And English's short game has improved. "The big change from college is his putting and wedges," Taylor said. "He's learned how to flight his wedges much better and control the spin from 100 yards in.

"He was like a lot of young guys, hitting the wrong club, hitting it way up in the air. So he's definitely advanced his game."

The other big step English took last May was to hire Brian Smith, a 22-year tour caddie who had stints with John Huston, Justin Leonard and Brad Faxon, among others. Smith instantly brought a wealth of experience that's been invaluable to the young player.

"The one thing that I have tried to bring to Harris that's helped a lot is being very patient and calm no matter what the situation is," Smith said. "Going into Augusta, my local knowledge in tournament conditions will be beneficial to him and then it's just a matter of execution."

Last June, English won his first PGA Tour event at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. After he made consecutive bogeys on holes eight and nine at the TPC Southwind in Memphis, Smith gave him a pep talk. English would go on to birdie two out of his last three holes to hold off Phil Mickelson and Scott Stallings for a two-shot win.

"Brian has made me a lot more comfortable out here because he knows everybody and he knows my game," said English, who took his second career win with Smith on his bag in Mexico at the Mayakoba Classic in November. "He almost gets better as a caddie when I get into contention."

Smith is excited about his boss' chances at Augusta.

"I think the course sets up well for Harris even though he fades the ball with his driver," Smith said. "He can draw his 3-wood and hit it far enough to take advantage on those right to left holes."

Taylor, who lives near English on Sea Island, Ga., agrees.

"Physically, Augusta sets up well for Harris," he said. "It's just a matter of him not being in awe of everything. He should prepare for this one like he does for all the other tournaments and not get caught up in the whole hooray of it all. That's going to be difficult, but I think he's mentally prepared for it."

With Tiger Woods out of the Masters, and other top players like Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott winless so far in 2014, English shouldn't be ruled out as a major contender at Augusta. In 1979, Fuzzy Zoeller became the last first-timer in the Masters to take the green jacket.

English is a part of a very talented group of Masters first-timers that includes Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed, who was briefly his teammate at Georgia. Walker and Reed have combined for five PGA Tour victories this season.

The only thing keeping these players from contending in this first major of the year is perhaps inexperience around the course and the pressure of the stage. But English and these other rising stars aren't likely to stumble when they see the big names on the leaderboard.

In February, English took out McIlroy in 19 holes in the second round of WGC-Accenture Match Play, where he only trailed the former No. 1 in the world for a single hole. To many that was an upset, but the golf world should become accustomed to English and McIlroy battling each other over the next decade in major championships and Ryder Cups.

"I almost feel like I belong now," English said. "My rookie year I had an idea about what it took to be on the PGA Tour, but I didn't really know what was going on. Now I feel like I have a lot more confidence in my game and myself. I'm so much more comfortable playing against the greatest players in the world."

English now feels accustomed to playing with the big names. "During my rookie year," he said, "it would make me nervous when I saw Tiger or Phil walk onto the practice green. I was a little starstruck. It's not that I'm more serious now. I'm just trying to take care of business."

When English was at Georgia, he played Augusta National annually, but never in tournament conditions. It was his favorite day of the year.

Around Christmas, he received his formal invitation to the 2014 Masters in the mail. It brought a huge smile to his face.

"This is my chance," he thought to himself. "This is what I have been waiting for."

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