AUGUSTA, Ga. — They are far from alone in their Augusta angst, but for a group of leading European players the Masters has long been about disappointment rather than delight. Relative to their unquestionably high talent levels—three have won at least one of the other three major championships—Martin Kaymer, Henrik Stenson, Francesco Molinari and Ian Poulter have all consistently come up short of expectations in American golf’s so-called “rite of spring.”
Consider their records:
• Kaymer (age 34): 11 starts; 0 top-10s; 5 missed cuts; best finish, T-16 in 2017
• Stenson (43) : 13 starts; 1 top-10; 4 missed cuts; best finish, T-5 in 2018
• Molinari (36): 7 starts; 0 top-10s; 2 missed cuts; best finish: T-19 in 2012
• Poulter (43): 13 starts, 2 top-10s; 1 missed cut; best finish: T-6 in 2015
For long enough, too, the 2017 Masters champion, Sergio Garcia, was also on this list of underachievement. Prior to triumphing in his 19th start, the Spaniard had a famously fractured relationship with both the tournament and the Augusta National course, compiling only three top-10 finishes.
So what’s going on? Is there a part of their games that has held these guys back? Is it a mental thing? Or are they just slow learners like Garcia?
“None of those guys are known for their great short games,” says former PGA champion Paul Azinger. “Plus, sometimes you can want something too much. Augusta is a mental challenge as much as anything. Guys prepare too much and their expectations are too much on the end result. More than another place, that is true here. More than on any other course in the world, it is incredibly difficult to stay in the moment and focus on one shot at a time.”
Still, it can be argued that Molinari at least has lost patience with a Masters record. The last two years have seen a marked transformation in the Italian’s fortunes, culminating in his Open Championship victory at Carnoustie last year. Despite his past misfortunes, the 36-year-old from Turin will start this week as one of the shorter-priced favorites to don the green jacket.
“Francesco’s record at Augusta is not great,” acknowledges his swing coach, Denis Pugh. “But he is a different player than he was even two years ago. He is, conservatively, 20 yards longer off the tee. So instead of hitting mid-irons into Augusta’s greens he is going to be hitting short irons. That’s a massive advantage when you are trying to get to those tight flags.”
Perhaps just as importantly, psychology guru Dave Allred has also made Molinari a lot tougher mentally. When he makes an early bogey there is no throwing-in of towels. “And he is now a much more reliable putter,” Pugh adds. “[Putting coach] Phil Kenyon has helped him so much. If you are a bad putter it is very hard to win the Masters. Which is not to say you have to be great, just not bad. Hitting the ball as well as he does, Francesco doesn’t have to hole everything to win.”
But you do have to make your fair share. Which is easier to do when you are putting from the right spots on Augusta’s notoriously fast greens. Which is why Pugh and Molinari spent a fair bit of time last week working on hitting right-to-left approach shots very specific distances.
Then there is the often-unspoken fact that some players just don’t like Augusta National or the unique ethos of the club. Like the Old Course at St. Andrews, Alister MacKenzie’s strategic masterpiece is not to everyone’s taste. Stenson has been known to offer less than flattering opinions on its worth, and Garcia famously blasted the course more than once before donning his green jacket.
“There’s a lot about Augusta that a lot of players don’t like,” says one well-known swing coach. “It’s not just the golf course, it’s the whole atmosphere. They are not used to being told what not to do. If they started the Masters now, Augusta National wouldn’t get away with what they do. They certainly wouldn’t be able to make it so inconvenient for players to do what they normally do.”
“The players we are looking at have Masters records less than you might expect for different reasons,” maintains CBS commentator Peter Kostis, who doubles as swing coach to another European, Paul Casey. “But if you were to build the ideal Masters golfer, you would hit it long and carry it far with the driver. You would be very precise with your distance control with the irons. You would be a great putter and a great chipper. That all sounds basic, but it is especially true here.
“Kaymer is a low-ball hitter. Until recently, Molinari didn’t hit it far enough. Poulter is a low-ball-hitter and so is Garcia. Stenson hits it high but is a marginal putter on really fast greens. And his swing is aggressive enough that it can be difficult to use on the uneven lies you get here.”
So what’s the solution?
“These guys all have a lot of experience round here,” concludes Azinger concludes. “So they just have to bide their time and not get desperate. Sergio winning has to give them all hope. This is the hardest tournament not to be thinking about winning before you start. Because that’s all that matters.”