It was not quite a moment for hoisting the flag of St George above the whitewashed clubhouse, but on this blustery afternoon, with temperatures more akin to South Thanet than the Deep South, Augusta’s verdant acres were conquered emphatically by the English.
Those dog days of 2001, when Lee Westwood was England’s sole representative in the top 100, seemed long forgotten as Matthew Fitzpatrick, translating his background as a teenage prodigy to the grandest stage, shot an obdurate round of 71 to seize an early Masters advantage.
It turned out to be just a prelude to a memorable flourish of Westwood’s own, as the 43 year-old last night reeled off a sequence of five straight birdies in a tournament where he has finished runner-up twice already.
How dearly he would love to shake off his casting as the perennial bridesmaid come Sunday evening. The scars of 2010, when he led by one heading into the final round, still cut deep. Westwood has wondered aloud why the recent surge to prominence of young English stars, from Tyrell Hatton to Tommy Fleetwood, has not been a greater cause for national celebration.
After all, the elder statesman of this contingent recalls an era when it fell only to him and Sir Nick Faldo to sustain English interest. This year, when Faldo has not even taken up his exemption as a three-time Masters champion, is the point when Fitzpatrick and his contemporaries should receive some overdue recognition.
At 21, Fitzpatrick is already well-versed in the vicissitudes of Augusta. It was overlooked at the time, but the Yorkshireman mounted a stirring Sunday surge here 12 months ago, with a closing 67 to equal that of Danny Willett, the eventual winner.
Where Willett was swiftly disabused yesterday of his billing as ‘Danny, champion of the world’, courtesy of a double-bogey at the first, Fitzpatrick simply continued where he had left off, reeling off three straight birdies from the eighth, when the winds were at their most devilish.
Never mind the azaleas, which have taken a battering over an unusually harsh Georgia winter, Augusta has become better acquainted this week with the White Rose. First Willett, native of Rotherham, treated fellow Green Jackets to a champions’ dinner menu of cottage pie and Yorkshire pudding – polished off with Henderson’s relish straight from Sheffield – and now Fitzpatrick has reminded his audience how they are bred tough in God’s Own Country.
This is Fitzpatrick’s third Masters appearance, after he secured an invite in 2014 for his victory in the US Amateur, and he has not needed long to demonstrate his assurance. His parents, Susan and Russell, are both staying in Augusta to furnish him with a few home comforts, and he gave every impression that he belonged. Even a late wobble, when he pulled his drive at the 17th into the pine straw, was rescued by a doughty par.
It was just regrettable that his scorecard was disfigured with two dropped strokes at the last, as he compounded the error of a hooked drive with a three-putt. The sight of him then turning to his caddie for a high-five suggested he did not regard it as too grievous a blow.
Fitzpatrick’s emergence from such a crowded field was significant. Often the first round of a major offers few clues as to the final outcome, but not so at Augusta, where no rookie has won since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. Early momentum is critical: over the last 10 Masters, the average position of the winner after the opening day is fifth. With conditions likely to be far more benign today, Fitzpatrick could hardly be better poised.
Not that he is likely to overlook the calibre of his competitors, mind. Rose, the Olympic gold medallist, is one who blends in seamlessly to Augusta’s floral tapestry, having never missed a cut in 11 journeys up Magnolia Lane.
Sullivan is also rediscovering the form that has elevated him from European Tour journeyman to legitimate contender. Minimising his mistakes in the gusts, he kept Fitzpatrick honest with a 71 that propelled him to the top of a congested leaderboard. “Last year I was nervous and couldn’t settle down,” he reflected. “This year it felt normal again. Naturally, you will drop shots in this weather. Holes like the 11th and 12th are difficult enough with a 5mph wind, but when it is 30mph it becomes so hard to judge.”
It took 20 years for English supremacy at Augusta to return, with Willett’s glory the first since Faldo’s vanquishing of Greg Norman in 1996. The initial pointers are that it could be here to stay.