WOOSNAM: MASTERS THE PINNACLE

IT’S 20 years since half of Wales stayed up until midnight to watch Ian Woosnam win the US Masters at Augusta. Anthony Woolford caught up with our greatest ever golfer to reflect on how those four days in Georgia changed the rest of his life.

AS soon as he arrived at Augusta National this week (sponsored byt the Free Golf Bet website) it was more of a stroll down memory lane than Magnolia Drive as Ian Woosnam’s mind wandered back 20 years.

The feel of the Green Jacket slipping over his shoulders as US Masters champion returned just like his 1991 triumph were yesterday. Yet you can’t blame Woosnam for coming over all nostalgic when the second weekend in April arrives.

The booming pulled drive over the fairway bunker, the eight iron off downtrodden grass to the fringe of the green, the worried gasps of the crowd as the first putt sailed eight feet past the pin.

And then that image. The one that forces all those who have a genuine appreciation of Welsh sport’s greatest moments to stand and stare.

Woosnam down on one knee, clenched fist raised, forearm pumping with sheer ecstatic relief etched across his face on seeing his ball disappear for a par four on Augusta’s 18th green. Then the bear-hug from caddie Phil ‘Wobbly’ Morbey (who almost dropped Woosnam’s Callaway golf clubs!) taking every last ounce of air from his lungs.

But remove the rosy hue of his heroics 20 years ago, when Woosie spanked his sumptuous draw around Georgia’s own Garden of Eden, and you’ll find a tale of how one of the greatest ever achievements in the Welsh sporting field became something of a poisoned chalice for the 2006 Ryder Cup-winning captain.

Because rather than being a Major launchpad for little Woosie to enhance his giant status in the world game, the Green Jacket came to be more a millstone around his neck.

“It was the greatest achievement of my career and something I had dreamed of for many years,” admitted Woosie, from his Barbados home.

“I feel you can’t be recognised as a great player unless you have a Major tournament win, and so it has allowed me to be recognised as a household name.

“When I received the Green Jacket from Nick Faldo, it was a great feeling to win my first Major and to be a part of history. Winning the Masters was the pinnacle.

“I’d always wanted to win a Major and it didn’t matter which one. But once I had done that, I had climbed to the top of the mountain and wasn’t quite sure where to go next.

FISHER LEADS THE MASTERS

Ross Fisher and Retief Goosen are tied for the lead in the opening round of the Masters Tournament, golf’s first major championship of the season.

Fisher, an Englishman who teed off in the first group of the day, is 4-under par through 15 holes at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. Goosen, from South Africa, made an eagle on the par-4 first hole and is 4 under through seven.

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland is 3-under par, while Matt Kuchar of the U.S., Sweden’s Carl Pettersson, Australia’s Aaron Baddeley, Japan’s Hiroyuki Fujita and Spain’s Sergio Garcia are 2 under.

Four-time Masters winner Tiger Woods, the second choice behind defending champion Phil Mickelson among oddsmakers, is even par through four holes. Mickelson starts his first round at 1:48 p.m., in the next-to-last group.

ISHIKAWA BRINGS HOPE

Japanese teen golf prodigy Ryo Ishikawa teed off Thursday in the 75th Masters with hopes of providing people struggling in his disaster-ravaged homeland some much-needed inspiration.

The 19-year-old superstar has vowed to donate his entire 2011 season golf prize money winnings to relief efforts in the wake of last month’s earthquake and tsunami that left 26,000 dead in Japan.

“I would really like to encourage people, especially those who are going through the hardship in Japan,” Ishikawa said. “I hope this will contribute to those people so they will be encouraged and they can walk again in their life.

“I believe in the power sports can bring to people who are affected by the disaster. I would like to do my best to bring joy to those people. I would like to emphasize the power and energy that sport can create.”

Ishikawa’s goal is to send 200 million yen ($2.4 million) in relief donation prize money this year as well as 100,000 yen ($1,200) for his every birdie.

“As I see how these people supported me, now it’s my turn to support those people who are in need,” Ishikawa said. “As my social status in Japan is getting higher, I believe that is one of the responsibilities.”