This week’s Masters debut for James Sugrue extends Ireland’s place amongst the pines to fifteen different players throughout the years as the wait goes on to see a man born on the Emerald Isle wearing the famous green jacket.
Since the great Joe Carr’s debut in 1967, Christy O’Connor Junior (1977), Garth McGimpsey (1986), Ronan Rafferty (1990), David Feherty (1992), Darren Clarke (1998), Padraig Harrington (2000), Paul McGinley (2002), Michael Hoey (2002), Graeme McDowell (2005), Brian McElhinney (2006), Rory McIlroy (2009), Alan Dunbar (2013) and Shane Lowry (2015) all made their first appearances at the most pristine parkland in golf.
For his unforgettable win at the Amateur Championship in Portmarnock, Mallow man Sugrue takes his place amongst that esteemed list, still pinching himself that an envelope arrived, albeit a long time ago now, postmarked ‘Augusta, GA’ to his little corner of Ireland.
“It was definitely worth the wait – it definitely lived up to expectations,” he said of the drive up Magnolia Lane. “It’s very cool, it’s classy. It’s surreal, especially if you’re a golf fan watching it all your life and seeing all the history that comes with it, it’s just very cool. I’d say I drove up the lane at about 8kph!”
“It’s mad like, when I won The Amateur, I always said that the opportunity is unbelievable. There are lots of great players, world class players who have never teed it up at The Masters who made a lot of money and just never got here so for me to play as an amateur in it is very cool.”
The experience of a November Masters will be a different one for the Corkonian, but any Masters experience would’ve been different for Sugrue. His family had everything booked before April’s original tee-off – a house for ten people close to the course. The entourage is no longer with him but he’s still managed to immerse himself in Masters tradition, even spending one night in the famous Crow’s Nest where his feet were dangling off the edge of the legendary beds.
“I stayed there last night,” he revealed. “It was very cool. There was no one else staying there – thank god – because it would’ve been a bit awkward if there was anyone else there. It’s basically the one room with just a little partition in between us and I snore so it wouldn’t have been great for them!
“I ordered room service, looked at the cool photos. I checked in at 7 o’clock so by the time I’d showered and ate I just went to bed but it’s nice to be able to say I stayed there. That’s probably the coolest thing about it, knowing all the unbelievable golfers who have stayed there through the years. It was a real Masters once in a lifetime experience.”
Sugrue has been attempting to make his Georgia surrounds as familiar as possible this week, sadly without his great friend Conor Dowling, who carried his bag to that Amateur Championship victory in Dublin, having the honour of donning a famous Masters bib come game day in Georgia. Instead, a local caddie will guide Sugrue around the world famous parkland and although he’s sickened to leave his great friend behind, he’s also grateful for a pair of eyes that have been opening his own to the intricacies of Augusta.
“There’s some stuff I never would’ve guessed – even reading some putts. It’s one of the only courses where the greens have grain but I actually cannot see the grain. It’s weird, usually you can see what way it’s going but over here you can’t, for whatever reason, which makes it doubly as tough,” he said.
“Not to have Conor is sickening for me – not to have my buddy here – and as good as Jack is around the greens with lines and stuff, I still can’t have the craic that I would’ve had with Conor with him, but I suppose, if you want to shoot a better score, you’re going to want to have someone like Jack on the bag.”
Sugrue’s first appearance amongst the pines brings to life a Masters experience that for so long only existing through the television screen. So, what has the course played like compared to expectations?
“The elevation changes stand out,” he admits. “The only time you seem to have a flat lie is on the tee box. Everything is up and down and side slopes and down slopes. You know the way people talk about the wind around Amen Corner – that’s actually a thing – I can confirm that. It’s actually so hard to trust it so it’s mad to experience that first hand.”
Even with these surprised, Sugrue sounded flat calm on the phone, admitting – at least for now – that he’s more nervous about a speech he has to make at an amateur dinner on Wednesday than Thursday’s opening tee shot. And that’s how it should be. As an amateur player in a field of the game’s best, any pressure Sugrue feels this week will be self-generated. That’s not to say he arrives without ambition. The world amateur number 8 will want to maximise his playing opportunities and will no doubt target a weekend appearance and a shot at the famous Silver Cup, the prize awarded to the tournament’s low amateur.
That’s not to say he won’t get anxious; his nerves were already given a jangle when Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas and Fred Couples walked up on James about to tee-off on 10 in a practice round.
“I was on the tee box by myself and next thing they rocked up to the tee and I had my ball pegged down and they were there watching me off 10,” he said. “It was very nerve-wracking but thankfully I hit a good one down there. I took out the three wood, closed that face and hit a big hook around the corner.”
“I’m just mad to get a picture with him to be honest,” he said of his hopes to be properly introduced to Tiger. “Unfortunately the opportunity hasn’t presented itself yet. I didn’t want to run over to him in the middle of his practice round like a child going ‘could I get a picture Tiger’, so I just left him be.”
It’s experiences like that that are sure to live long in the memory bank for James. Above all else, Masters week remains one to treasure, free from external expectations and just reward for what was a magical performance at Portmarnock in June, 2019: “I can’t wait for Thursday now,” he says. “I’ve been here long enough!”
Listen to our Masters preview Pod featuring James Sugrue, Paul McGinley, Graeme McDowell by clicking the cover below or click HERE