Irish golf writer Brian Keogh on this new Millennium not having a European winner so far
Bernhard Langer doesn’t do slapdash. He doesn’t do the backhanded tap in. Even when you stop him as he’s about to slide his two-time Masters winning frame into the leather interior of a menacing looking Mercedes-Benz at 9 o'clock on a cool Augusta morning, the 58-year old fixes you with those steely blue eyes that dare you to waste his time.
There’s no escaping that gaze now.
Why, we wondered, hasn't a European won a Masters jacket this century? What has stopped a Justin Rose, a Henrik Stenson or even a Rory McIlroy from joining the club?
Langer, disappointingly, doesn’t have clue. He can’t help us with that, he says. There are just so many good players from all over the world.
One thing he was sure of was that it wasn’t Tiger’s fault. Woods, absent this year, won the last (or most recent) of his three Masters in 2004 and Phil hasn’t won every year either.
“McIlroy? His game should be perfect,” Langer agrees. "He hits it far and he hits it high; short game is pretty good. So he can do it. He should be in contention and hopefully win it. Sooner or later…"
The more he starts thinking about why a European hasn’t won since José María Olazábal in 1999, the more he scratches his head. The door of the Merc is open but he hangs around a while longer.
"It is a strange thing,” he says. "But that’s golf. You have 100 guys and only one is going to win. You have got to be on top of your game that week.”
And there’s the thing. You’ve got to be on top of your game and have the courage of your convictions to take on the iconic holes, the shots so laden with memories of good and bad things that it’s a wonder any of the players can take the club away.
Paul McGinley sees taking on Augusta like a game of poker, where winning or losing depends on knowing “when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em."
Bubba Watson, right, helps Jordan Spieth put on his green jacket for the second time after winning the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga. His intelligence on the golf course might be a big reason that Spieth last year became the youngest player in nearly a century to win two majors at age 21. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)
McIlroy has slowly built up his own game plan for the course, finally slaying the par-fives in 14 under last year.
But still has eight double bogeys and three triple bogeys on his resumé in seven appearances and as Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee pointed out this week, that’s a no-no if you want one of those green jackets.
"Since 1997 only Phil Mickelson in 2004, Trevor Immelman in 2008 and Jordan Spieth last year have recorded a score higher than bogey on the way to victory,” Chamblee writes.
McIlroy had just one double bogey last year en route to a career best fourth place finish behind Spieth — at the ninth on Friday in what has become a traditional, Masters-wrecking stretch of 40 blows or more. He’s had one every year since he limped home on 43 on Sunday in 2011, when he lost a four-stroke lead.
There’s no question that the 26- year old from Holywood is bubbling under this year and rounding into form at just the right time.
He had given Chris Wood a clinic on Monday, long before closing out a 3 and 2 win over the Englishman with what felt, literally, like an earth-shaking hole-in-one at the 16th.
He’s already a one-name golfing icon wherever he goes. Mention of “Rory” around Augusta is as natural as talk of “Jack”, or “Seve” or “Tiger.”
All he’s lacking is the performance and whether or not it happens this year, Langer is certain what he has to do.
"What did I do well when I won here?… Everything."
Sure, you have to know when to “hold ‘em and fold ‘em.” But as Langer knows, winning is sometimes about cold-heartedly, ruthlessly murdering the opposition with a telling blow at the right time.
“No-go pins? When it’s back left on 11,” Langer says. “But even there you can go for it, if you are swinging well. That’s what I am saying. If you are swinging really well you actually do go for everything. And that’s the key.
“You could say 16 back right. But if you miss it right you are going to make bogey anyway. There are a bunch of pins like that.
“When you are on top of your game, you can do it. But when you are not on top of your game, you’d better not try too often.”
Is McIlroy on top of his game? His performances so far this season would suggest that he’s not quite there yet.
A hole in one on Monday was a nice way to start his week but with 53 of the top 55 in the world gathered on a course that the players say is already set to play harder than ever, the field is deep.
“You just don’t know,” says two-time winner Ben Crenshaw.
Yes, McIlroy is up there with Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Adam Scott, Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler as one of the Big Six fancied to win.
But there’s also Dustin Johnson, Stenson, the reigning Open champion and former Masters champion Zach Johnson, the 2013 runner up Louis Oosthuizen, 2011 winner Charl Schwartzel or the fearless Danny Willett.
There’s Hideki Matsuyama (fifth last year) and Justin Rose (second), the always dangerous Patrick Reed or power merchants who can putt like angels, such as Brooks Koepka, Paul Casey or Jimmy Walker; or driving and short game specialists like Shane Lowry.
McIlroy may just have to go out and take it and prove that he really does have the short game and putting nous to get the job done.
As Langer says, when you’re swinging well, you can go for it.