Together at top of rankings, English players are fighting for green jacket
On the eve of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Admiral Lord Nelson delivered his battle cry to his troops. "England expects that every man will do his duty." Okay, so no one is likely to lose an eye or an arm in the Battle of Augusta in 2010, but there are eight Englishmen in the field this week fighting to be the first from Her Majesty's island to win the Masters since Sir Nicholas Faldo in 1996.
And they come to Georgia with a show of strength. Five of them are in the World's Top 30 and three are in the Top 10: Lee Westwood (4th), Paul Casey (6th) and Ian Poulter (7th). It's a far cry from 10 years ago when Westwood was only Englishman in the Top 100.
The rivals and friends played nine holes together on Tuesday and Westwood took the money. But it's bragging rights on Sunday that they're chasing. "Lee said we're coming in here mob-handed, and he's right," said Poulter, who won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship this year. "There are eight of us. That's 10 percent of the field. It is time one of us stepped up. I love it. We're spurring each other on."
Poulter is now proving he has a game as sharp as his spiky hair and loud pants. He has taken two weeks off for the first time before a major and says he's fresh and fired up. "I have done my homework," he said. "I have drawn as many lines on the greens in my yardage book as I can. Any more and it would be an illegible scribble book."
When Faldo won 14 years ago, Poulter remembered that he was in his second year as an assistant pro and was working in the pro shop at Leighton Buzzard in England. "The golf was always on the TV," he said. "Highlights package during the day then live at home at night. That victory was a great inspiration to me."
Poulter will tee off in the group ahead of Tiger Woods, but he doesn't think he will suffer from the hullabaloo that will surround the World No.1. "They are very respectful fans inside these gates," he said. "There are going to be 25,000 on Thursday rather than 70,000. It will be busy but it won't be crazy."
Westwood was sipping a diet cola and watching the football (that's soccer) on TV in the locker room on Tuesday. He seemed as confident as he did before he won the Dubai World Championship last November to be crowned Europe's No. 1 player.
"I'm feeling good and playing well," said Westwood, who has finished third in the last two majors. "If you are ultra confident, you get into that zone we all talk about. I had it in Dubai."
That week in Dubai he talked about bullying his biggest rival, Rory McIlroy, and the rest of the field. It worked then. But this is a major. "I don't think you can bully the field so much (in a major), but I still feel that if I play my best it will be good enough to win. I know it will be."
As for his English rivals and the return of Tiger, he said: "I'm not going to pay much attention to what anybody else is doing. I can't worry about anybody else. I'm not really going to give a damn about the rest of them." How's that for fighting talk?
Casey pulled out of last week's Houston Open with a sore shoulder, but both he and his manager say he is fit and ready. He has four top 10s this season and was runner-up to Poulter in the Match Play.
"I want to be the first one to win a major because otherwise Poulter or Westwood or one of the others is going to beat me to it," Casey said. "British golf now is phenomenal. We've been sick of the question for the last few years of when are we going to win a major. We probably weren't quite ready. I certainly wasn't as ready as I am now. ... We need to start producing results."
It is time for the English generation inspired by Faldo, as well as by Europeans Ian Woosnam, Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer and Seve Ballesteros, to claim their place in the game's history. From 1980 to 1996, Europe's Big Five won 10 Masters titles, including four in a row for the British between Sandy Lyle in 1988, Faldo in '89 and '90, and Woosnam in '91. The current Big Three paid respect to the influence those legends had on their careers.
"They are definitely the reason you've got such a wave of guys coming through," Casey said. "They always say an overnight success takes 10, 15 or 20 years!" Casey remembers being spurred on by Lyle. "That 7-iron bunker shot up over the lip that found the green and rolled back down the hill. The little jig afterwards. He was probably the last guy to win with the little tassel and flaps on his shoes," Casey said laughing. "That's when I started to stop playing football, cricket, tennis and rugby and focused on the golf."
Westwood won the first of his 31 tour victories in Scandinavia in 1996 and could only watch on TV with envy from Somewhere in Europe as Faldo won his third green jacket. Becoming the next Englishman to win the Masters was but a distant dream for Westwood. Now he's the leader of the pack. Poulter, too, remembers watching his idol Faldo winning all three of his green jackets, but he also has a soft spot for Woosnam in '91. It was probably the Welshman's checked pants that did it for Poulter. "I can vividly remember Woosie's tartan trousers as that putt went in on 18 and he bent down on one knee to give that fist pump," Poulter said. "How cool was that?"
But can this new generation continue to practice together and dine together then try to beat each other's brains out at the weekend? Can they be rivals and remain friends? "It's a nice warm cozy feeling with so many friends up in the world rankings," Casey said smiling. "But that shouldn't be confused with complacency. We are all pushing each other hard. It's a race now to be the first one to win a major."
Let battle commence.