It's not a minor matter: Woosnam wants a major


April 14, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The smart money in the Masters is no riding on Ian Woosnam, the little Welshman, and not just because he has the lead after three rounds. He is the best player in the world never to win a major championship, and that blank on his long list of accomplishments is driving him this week. It is just time for him to win one.

There are 12 players within six strokes of his lead, among them a passel of major champions that includes such names as Watson, Wadkins and Floyd, but Woosnam stands out as the player for whom it seems most important. That is what happens when you are 33 and ranked No. 1 in the world and everyone keeps asking when you will win a major.

That would be enough to motivate any player, but the chip on Woosnam's shoulder is particularly large. He has spent his prime being overshadowed by fellow Britons Nick Faldo and Sandy Lyle. He also is only 5 feet 4, and at the risk of indulging in some amateur psychology, is intent on proving he is a bigger man than his height. Winning the Masters would do the trick.

He began slowly this week with a 72 Thursday, but jumped near the top of the leader board with a 66 in the second-round Friday, then laid a 67 on the field yesterday, finishing with an oh-so-sweet back-nine 33. He is playing brilliantly, far better than anyone else in the field, drives long, irons accurate, putts right at the hole.

The sheer power of his momentum finally took control of the tournament on the back nine yesterday. Until then it had been a rollicking, up-for-grabs circus with as many as 15 possible winners, among them Jack Nicklaus and Ray Floyd. As Woosnam birdied Nos. 12 through 15, however, the list of contenders suddenly narrowed considerably.

That Tom Watson, after a 70 yesterday, is the only golfer still within a stroke of Woosnam is a wonderful story worth investing a cheer or two. But the smart money is on Woosnam. Watson's rediscovered putting touch has been a marvel this week, but it is still fragile. "I got a little jumpy over some short ones," he said yesterday. That just doesn't sound like the way to win a major tournament.

Of course, Woosnam has never led a major after three rounds, so he will learn today about such pressures, and doing so at Augusta National will be an enormous test of his character. The place practically invites players to collapse on the back nine Sunday. Woosnam is not immune.

But he has spent his entire career preparing for this moment, and it comes at a time when he is experienced enough to handle it. He has been a hero in Ryder Cups -- a major event to Europeans -- and won 26 tournaments around the world, beating the world's best. He might be nervous today, but he won't be intimidated.

"Ian is a hell of a player, and he's been a hell of a player for a long time," said Lanny Wadkins, who is tied with Spain's Josa-Maria Olazabal for third, three strokes back. "Those of us who play international golf are not the least bit surprised to see him on top of the leader board. He's going to be tough to catch. I'm sure of that."

It is safe to say that Woosnam has been one of the world's best half-dozen players for the past five years, but because he rarely plays in the United States, he is known here mostly as just the little man who hits so far. He is indeed a sight off the tee, smaller than the caddies, but with those thick arms, his drives flying high into the distance.

He developed his strength not with weights but naturally: His father, a farmer, dragged him into the Welsh fields to work, and the years of hard labor developed his arms. Of course, bringing up these circumstances is the surest way to put him in a snit. He doesn't enjoy being reminded that he is so small.

The other day a reporter asked him if he thought his size hindered his play. A dumb question, yes, but instead of dismissing it, Woosnam got testy. "What does it look like?" he responded with a sour face. He is sick of the issue, and his days of being regarded as something of a freak would end if he wins the Masters.

A win also would make it a lot easier for him to live with the notion of being a poor man's Faldo. He has beaten Faldo often enough to earn the No. 1 spot in the Sony world rankings, which the golf world considers official, but Faldo is the one with four major titles. Faldo laughed when Woosnam became No. 1 a few weeks ago, clearly thinking the whole issue beneath him.

"Getting to No. 1 was great, something I always wanted, but the thing I really want to do is win that major," Woosnam said. "I do feel in a way that I've always been in Nick's shadow. His or Sandy Lyle's [another Masters winner from Great Britain]. It keeps me going."

The 18 longest holes in golf -- the last round of the Masters -- separate him from his goal, and he will face no less than a couple of challenges. Ian Woosnam is right there. On the brink. Ready to move up to the next level, the level to which only winners of majors are admitted. He is hungry, clearly, the hungriest man on the leader board. The smart money is on him. Now he has to go out and do it. This is golf, not football. The smart money isn't always right.

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