THE ARRIVAL of April means only one thing. With apologies to the Internal Revenue Service and May flowers, April is all about the Masters Tournament. You may have missed this, but the annual pilgrimage to Augusta got a lot more interesting in the past two weeks.
First, we learned at Doral that Tiger Woods isn't going to go New England Patriots on us and win everything on the regular-season schedule. (We were starting to wonder.) That's partly because some former top rivals who had been missing in action finally reappeared at Doral and look ready to challenge the Great One anew, notably Jim Furyk, Geoff Ogilvy, Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh.
Second, Masters fever is beginning to heat up because there's a new player on the block. You know how Masters champions tend to be big hitters (like Tiger), superlative iron players (like Tiger) and great putters (like Tiger)? You've also just summed up the elements of the game of Andrés Romero, your new Zurich Classic of New Orleans champion.
Romero had already earned an invite to Augusta for his first Masters even before his one-shot (13-under) victory at TPC Louisiana. But his performance was a reminder that he is more than just the fun-size version of fellow Argentine Angel Cabrera, the U.S. Open champ. Romero has top-five-in-the-world potential. It's no coincidence that three months into his rookie PGA Tour season, he scored his first American W.
You may recall Romero as the man who should've won last summer's British Open. He scorched Carnoustie for 10 birdies in the final round, but his double-bogey, bogey finish (equal parts bad luck and bad decisions) caused him to miss the Padraig Harrington--Sergio García playoff by a stroke.
Was it a devastating loss? Hardly. He won a European tour event in Germany the following week. And that wasn't just some torrid two-week stretch. Romero had been in the mix at the British Open the year before, too, eventually tying for eighth while Woods outdueled Chris DiMarco at Hoylake.
"He hits it beautiful," says Tour player James Driscoll, who was paired with Romero in the Zurich's final two rounds. "He's fun to watch."
Romero plays eye-opening golf. He's 5'8" and about 145 pounds and he looks as if he had just stepped out of a junior high yearbook, but he'll turn 27 next month, and he crushes the ball off the tee. Romero was paired with Woods in the Bridgestone Invitational's first two rounds at Firestone last August, and after watching him launch massive drives during a practice round, European tour player Graeme Storm warned, "Tiger is in for the shock of his life."
After the rounds—Romero shot a pair of 71s and would tie for sixth, 10 shots behind winner Woods—Tiger conceded that Romero was definitely longer with his irons and probably longer off the tee. And he was third in putting on the Euro tour last year, which means that Romero could be a factor at Augusta National in years to come.
Romero's competition in New Orleans included Presidents Cup hero Woody Austin. Needing a birdie on the 72nd to tie, Austin muffed a utility-club shot from the rough, moving it only 20 feet, causing even Austin to laugh at himself. Forced to go for the green, Austin hit the same club again, this time into the pond right of the green. "I played like a dog the last nine," said Austin, who is renowned for his frequent self-loathing. "When you're in the lead and play that poorly for nine holes, you're choking, and I'm not afraid to admit it. I was puking my guts out."
Romero was introduced to the game in his hometown of Yerba Buena, as a caddie at a nearby club, and was taught to play by an uncle. "Mucho, mucho talento," said his countryman Cabrera after Romero's run at Carnoustie. Romero decided to switch from the European tour to the U.S. this year. Why? "Too cold," he said.
The decision has paid off. He has conquered America, in a way, and next week he'll play his first Masters. He talked with other players, he said, "and they recommend me to especially practice the greens; that's the most important thing."
This week, those players who don't have a Masters invitation but can get one by winning a tournament have one last shot in Houston. They'd love to end up alongside Romero, practicing the greens.
NEWS & NOTES
"My son, who's 11, asked me where I bought all my trophies."
—STEVE ELKINGTON, 44, whose last victory was in 1999, on why he is playing more
Thanks to a $2 million contribution from the PGA Tour and some pro bono work by Pete Dye, TPC Louisiana has come back from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Other courses in New Orleans haven't been as fortunate.
COURSE: Bayou Oaks
The three 18s used to get 200,000 rounds a year, but only the range has reopened. So far $1 million has been spent to refurbish the North course, which could reopen this summer.
One of the original hosts of the New Orleans Tour stop is being renovated—six of the original holes will remain, along with 12 new ones designed by Ron Garl—and could reopen this fall.
COURSE: Joseph Bartholomew
The Bart was set to reopen after a $1 million renovation when Katrina hit and buried it under 20 feet of water. Rebuilding cost: $5 million, which isn't in the city's budget.
Brechtel is back in business but barely playable. The pumping station was destroyed, so the irrigation ponds rely on rainwater, and locals expect a brown and bleak summer.
This 36-hole facility, once rated among the top five in the state, was submerged in 12 feet of water for two weeks. Nine holes briefly reopened but closed for good in October.
NEXT: SWIMSUIT ISSUE
A year ago Kenneth Ferrie of England was the cover boy for the SI GOLF PLUS Masters Preview and part of a photo essay on Masters rookies. (He missed the cut, shooting 14 over.) A four-time winner worldwide, the 29-year-old Ferrie is now a rookie on the U.S. Tour, where his best finish has been 13th, at the Buick Invitational. Unless he wins this week's Shell Houston Open, he won't be returning to Augusta, but he'll always have his SI cover. "[SI] was my claim to fame," he says. "One has a place in my office at home. It was my first Masters, and it was special because you feel as if you already know the course before you get there. Hopefully, I'll be back."
Follow the Shell Houston Open, the last chance for a Masters berth, at GOLF.com.
Photograph by Fred Vuich
DIFFERENT ENDS On the final nine Romero (left) blazed to a 33, while the self-critical Austin faded with a 38.
Photograph by Fred Vuich
[See caption above]
Photograph by Fred Vuich
SEE Y'ALL SOON Striding off 18, Romero looked ready for his first trip to Augusta.
DARREN CARROLL (FERRIE)