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The evolution of Masters man

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Rob Hodgetts | 00:44 UK time, Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Masters has an enduring magic that captivates generation after generation. Once hooked, nobody falls out of love with it.

Sure, some final rounds are more exciting than others. But by then, Augusta's allure has guaranteed we'll be back again next year.

And each time the Masters comes around, for every old timer bowing out, or new champion crowned, there's another debutant pulling into Magnolia Lane for the first time with eyes wide open and a thumping heart.

It's the evolution of Masters man, and hopefully it will continue long after we're all gone. What follows are the thoughts of five men at different stages of their Masters careers, ending with the great Jack Nicklaus.

England's Chris Wood is one of those making his first appearance this year after booking his spot with a third place at the Open at Turnberry last July. He nearly made it the year before, coming out of obscurity to finish fifth in the Open as an amateur, missing out on a trip to Augusta by one shot.

The 22-year-old from Bristol, who turned pro after the Open in 2008, first saw the Masters on TV when he watched Tiger Woods romp to his first major title at Augusta in 1997. But now he's here himself and trying to take it all in.

Wood will need to control his nerves off the tee at AugustaWood is getting used to the idiosyncrasies of life at Augusta - photo: Getty Images

"The first time I was here practising a couple of weeks ago I couldn't believe the slopes of the place," he said. "Walking up to the 18th green is quite a long way and I'm not even carrying the bag. It's tiring. But 10 as well, down the slope around the corner is pretty steep.

"It's the space, too. I was stood up by the clubhouse looking down towards the second green. You can hardly recognise any of the holes. Now there are lots of people here it's a bit more recognisable. A bit more 'Mastery'."

Wood's soft Bristolian burr (think "Maaaastery") adds to the impression of a young guy setting out in the world as we chat under the old oak tree outside the Augusta clubhouse.

He went on: "It was a little bit nerve-wracking on Monday, hitting off the first tee in practice. There were hundreds of people around the tee and you think, 'goodness me, first tee at Augusta' - and that was only in a practice round. So it's going to be a great experience, and I can't wait to get started."

Wood, 6ft 5in tall and willowy like a two-iron, reckons Augusta National's own brand of house rules have been the biggest eye opener.

"They are very strict on passes and getting into places," he said. "They've got their own rules. It's just not like any other tournament.

"I got told off for texting in the players' lounge. They do it their own way so that's fair enough, but I wasn't expecting it." And who was he texting? "My lovely girlfriend, Bethany."

Wood is staying in a house with his parents and his coach, while Bethany's dad - here as a 50th birthday present - and eight members of his home Long Ashton club are in another house. Is Bethany here? "She wanted to come, but... I won't go there," he laughed.

What's been the best thing about the Masters so far?

"Skipping the ball across the lake on 16, that's pretty cool," he said, referring to the Masters tradition during practice days of players trying to hop a ball across the surface of the water onto the green of the par three.

"The crowd just shout at you, 'skip it, skip it', so you hit it off the downslope in front of the tee and skim it across the water. I only just made it across on Monday but you get a big cheer. I'm dying to have another go to hit a better shot."

The question is, can Wood, who has become something of an Open specialist, perform well at the Masters?

"I think it suits my game," he said. "I'm hitting the ball a bit further now off the tee and you need a lot of imagination on the greens, chipping and putting. It almost takes the green reading out of it because the slopes are so severe. You can almost drop a ball down and visualise the putt without needing to line up on your ball.

"It's really just a lot of feel and touch, and that's one of the strengths of my game."

If Wood is about to take his first steps as a Masters player, Angel Cabrera is still basking in the glory of his first Green Jacket.

"I think when I sank that putt to win the tournament is something that will stay with me forever," said the 40-year-old Argentine, who also won the US Open in 2007.

The former caddie, talking about driving back down Magnolia Lane to the clubhouse as defending champion, added: "It was a great sensation, a great satisfaction going down where I had left last year with the jacket on. It's very hard even to describe what I felt."

Cabrera produced a wonder shot to stay in last year's play-off with Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell after driving into the trees to the right of the 18th. He eyed the smallest of gaps and hit more in hope than expectation. The ball thudded into a tree but miraculously popped out into the middle of the fairway.

This week, Cabrera accompanied his son Angel, his caddie this year, down to the spot where he played the shot from.

Cabrera came through a play-off to win last year at AugustaCabrera joined the illustrious list of champions with his victory at last year's tournament - photo: Getty Images

"Honestly, I'm the one who wanted to go and see that shot, but he was the perfect excuse," said Cabrera Sr.

As the winner, Cabrera got to keep his famous Green Jacket for a year (just locked up safely, he says) before returning it to be kept in the exclusive Champions' Locker Room at Augusta. Another perk is that he hosts the Champions' Dinner for past winners. As tradition dictates, he chose a menu from his homeland, though the players can order off the house menu, too.

Cabrera says it took him "very little time" to decide on Argentine beef barbecue (asado), starting with empanadas, followed by rib-eye steak with mashed potatoes and asparagus with crepes and dulce de leche (a kind of caramel milk) for dessert, washed down with Argentine wine.

"Being around Nicklaus, Palmer, Watson and Tiger, it's not every day you have a chance to have dinner with these golf legends," he said. "I just want them to have a great time and to enjoy some great Argentinian meat."

If winning the Masters is a dream for most, Phil Mickelson has moved into an even more exclusive realm as a double winner, after victories at Augusta in 2004 and 2006. Only nine men have won the Masters twice, and only seven have won more Green Jackets than that. The 39-year-old is making his 18th Masters appearance but he is still just as excited.

"I can't believe it's been 18 Masters," he says. "I remember staying here in the Crow's Nest [the attic in the clubhouse reserved for amateurs]. What a special place. It's the most exciting place to come play as a player. It's where we all get excited to have our shot at the first major championship of the year. Here at Augusta National, everything is so pristine and beautiful. It's a unique place and we are all excited to be here."

While Cabrera insists that being a past winner doesn't count for a lot this year, other than the fallback of knowing that he's done it before, Mickelson reckons his experience at Augusta means he's more relaxed coming into the event.

"I don't feel like I have to have my perfect game, ball-striking, to be able to go around this course and shoot in the 60s," he said. "That's why I enter this tournament with a lot less stress.

"Even though I haven't been in contention in recent weeks, there's something that relaxes me about this golf course. As long as I can control my misses and put it where I can get up and down, I can let my short game save me strokes here and there."

Mickelson might be one of the older lags in Masters terms, but he is yet to qualify as an elder statesman. One man who definitely has is Raymond Floyd, the 1976 champion, who retired at Augusta on Tuesday after 45 appearances.

"It's a place that as a youngster it was always my goal to play here," said the 67-year-old. "Then it became a goal to win here. It was my darling wife's first golf tournament. Our children have been to every Masters since they have been born so you can see the affection that not only I have but my family has for the golf tournament and for Augusta National. I've had so many fond, special memories but I'm not competitive now. I don't want to embarrass myself."

Top of the tree, though, the doyen of them all, is the 70-year-old Nicklaus, the record six-time Masters winner. The 18-time major champion is equal fourth in all-time Masters appearances behind Gary Player (52), Arnold Palmer (50) and Doug Ford (49), and level with Floyd and Billy Casper.

I asked Nicklaus what advice he would give to a young guy just starting out on his Masters career.

Nicklaus was a dominant force at AugustaNicklaus has won six green jackets, with his last coming in 1986 - photo: Getty Images

"Watch, observe," he said. "Most of the time it's a case of playing here for two or three years to learn something. So watch, don't be focused so much on yourself, be focused on what happens in the tournament and how people play the golf course."

Nicklaus will join Palmer as honorary starter for the first time this year, a role he appears to have taken to fairly grudgingly because it is finally an acknowledgement for this old warrior that his best days are over.

The man dubbed the "Golden Bear" in his prime won his sixth Masters title at the age of 46 in 1986, more than a decade after his previous Green Jacket. He was asked if that represented the sweetest of his wins at Augusta.

"Well, I think they are all very sweet," he said. "I didn't have any one I didn't like."

Whatever the stage of their Masters career, all the players will be dreaming of slipping into a Green Jacket on Sunday night. And that's the mark of a Masters man.



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