Golf Australia

Leishman flies the flag for Australia

Marc Leishman
Marc Leishman

Players call it the "wow factor'', and it is the problem that hits first-timers at Augusta National, the golfers' nirvana. It is extremely common.

The story is familiar. A player finally qualifies for his coveted Masters invitation, and he turns up on the Monday of the tournament with his eyes bulging. He has a planeload of family in tow and an assortment of friends, too, and they rent a house at big money. Everyone wants to see the boy play the fabled Augusta; maybe contend for the green jacket.

Then he plays poorly. At Amen Corner, his head is spinning. Before he knows it, he has missed the cut.

Marc Leishman has been there, in 2010, when he followed his promising opening-round 72 with a 79 that cost him a spot in the field for the weekend. Back in the field this week for a second crack at breaking the Australian hoodoo on the Masters, Leishman will be looking for a more rounded performance.

His coach, Denis McDade, acknowledges that Augusta is a difficult place for first-timers largely because players have to deal with being overwhelmed. "It's the dream of most golfers to play there,'' said McDade. "Then all of a sudden you find yourself there. For most Aussies, we've watched it for 10 or 20 or 30 years on TV and then 'wow I'm here'. Its like walking around the corner at St Andrews for the first time and seeing the Royal and Ancient club house, the first tee, the 18th green, Swilcan Burn. Seeing it for the first time you can't help but be excited.

"Typically what happens with these guys is that they'll take their family with them, all these sorts of things, and it becomes a distraction. This time Mark's taking his caddie and I think his Mum and Dad will be with him, and that's it.''

McDade says it is not merely the fact that the place is so famous; it actually needs to be learned. Augusta National is a strategic course, and while the fairways are wide and generous, there are angles that need to be considered on every hole. That's why veterans often tend to play well at Augusta, says McDade.

"You look at the number of older guys, if you like, who just bob up after a number of years. Ten or 15 times and there's so much local knowledge, where to hit it, more important where not to hit it, the angles into the greens, the different flag positions, where you have to hit it off the tee. There's so much to learn and it's really hard to do that with just a couple of practice rounds before you play the first time.''

Leishman, 29, qualified by dent of his maiden victory on the United States PGA Tour, at the Travelers Championship last year. But his early-season form in 2013 has been sketchy, and he goes to Augusta National without fanfare.

Still his hopes will be high and his coach believes the course suits him.
"Increasingly, you've got to be able to drive it longer but you've got to be able to hit the ball into position to get your angle into the greens and the flag positions,'' said McDade. "There's no doubt it's becoming increasingly important around Augusta to drive the ball long, and I think that suits Marc.

"The first time Marc played there he said a couple of times he hit the ball on to the wrong shelf. It was almost a good shot and he said you'd stand there and you're petrified. The touch and skill that's required to get the ball close is a real test, as it should be in a major. It should be testing that part of the game and you definitely get that at Augusta. That's what he said to me: 'You hit what you think is close to a great shot, and it'll just feed away from the flag and you have a very difficult two-putt, even.''

What does it take to play well at Augusta? Many people say a right-to-left shot shape is handy, for holes like the second, ninth, 10th, 13th dogleg to the left. Yet Jack Nicklaus won six Masters using his left-to-right shape.

"There are holes that lend themselves to right-to-left,'' said McDade. "My theory is you've got to hit the ball strong, you've got to be able to position the ball off the tee and you've got to be able to hit precise irons and you've got to be a great putter! That's a component. If you can hit a controlled right-to-left shot, it's going to help you on a number of holes, but I wouldn't have thought that was a prerequisite for winning around there.''

Geoff Ogilvy has said that Augusta National, the jewel of Dr Alister Mackenzie's design work, needed to be played backwards. In other words a player imagines himself standing on the green, working out where the best place to putt from would be. He then surveys back down the fairway to see where the best angle for the iron shot is, and so on for the tee shot.

McDade agrees with that theory. ''It's a highly-strategic golf course. We all know what golf's like, you have these plans: 'I'll do this and I'll do that'. But it doesn't always work like that and when you leave yourself with a 40-footer, you need a hell of a short game to recover from that and walk to the next tee saying 'we got out of jail there, keep going'. It's the sort of place where if you hit the ball in the wrong spot, you stand there thinking 'I'll do really well to make par here'.''

Leishman has been tinkering with his swing in 2013 but recently told McDade he felt he would play well at Augusta. The man from Warrnambool in western Victoria, who won his local club championship at just 13, is working hard on all aspects of his game, calling sports psychologist Neil Smith and conditioning man Simon Webb into his team recently.

"He's won now on the tour, and I think there's an expectation from him that 'we've done it once, let's do it again','' said McDade. "The start to his year has not been brilliant but I think he's building toward this week. On paper the last few weeks don't look brilliant but he's addressed a few things that I think will help him.

"He's got immense talent. I think he's got the capacity to get into the top 20 in the world, and once you get into that echelon things open up. The majors and things like that.''

Leishman, ranked 108th in the world, is one of four Australians in the Masters field this year. The others are Adam Scott (world rank 7), Jason Day (39) and John Senden (50).

Scott tied for eighth last year, tied for second the year before, and shapes as the best chance of his countrymen.

22 August 2016
21 August 2016
17 August 2016
15 August 2016
04 August 2016
GOLF MONTH
Golf Australia