Greeson: Learning English takes on Masters classes

Greeson: Learning English takes on Masters classes

April 12th, 2014 by Jay Greeson in Sports - Columns

Harris English hits out of a bunker on the 10th hole during the first round of the Masters golf tournament Thursday, April 10, 2014, in Augusta, Ga.

Harris English hits out of a bunker on...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Harris English walked from the 18th green, after yet another birdie putt painstakingly burned another edge of another hole, and made his way through the patrons of Augusta National.

He went to the clubhouse, turned in his scorecard and emerged wondering what could have been.

His smile did not readily relay a second-round 76. His ease and demeanor did not portray an afternoon of "what if ..." that can echo in the inner workings of a golfer's mind.

"He is so laid back," Martha English said as she walked the Augusta National grounds as her son played with the best golfers on the planet. "He takes everything as it comes and never gets too high or too low."

But, Mom, this is Augusta. This is where Tiger became Tiger and Jack did Jack things and where everyone knows every hole and where the winner gets the most famous cloth trophy in the world.

"That's just how he is," she said with a gleam that was equal parts pride and prejudice. "This may sound crazy, but he knew he was going to be here someday. And he made it happen."

He sure did. English has two PGA wins in the last 10 months. He is ranked No. 36 in the world and is in the top five in the season-long FedEx standings. He's fourth on tour in scoring average and leads the the big boys in greens in regulation. He has a perfect swing and a high-velocity frame built for the game. He is fearless and respectful and impossibly focused and blessedly forgetful when it fits his pysche.

"The epitome of the modern game, really," Lee Westwood, who was ranked No. 1 in the world not that long ago, said of his playing partner. "Hit it a long way and very aggressive on the greens."

Aggressive did not translate to successful this time. But for English it truly seems when, not if, he makes his mark on golf's grandest venues like the cathedral that is Augusta National.

What if he had made the 5-footer for birdie on No. 1 after he crushed a driver? What if he had made the uphill birdie look at No. 3 after a perfect wedge that landed next to the hole but rolled 10 feet down the hill? What if he had made the 15-footer for eagle on the 15th or the 10-foot birdie on the last?

"Everybody knows what a great player he is," friend and playing partner Russell Henley said of English. "It's just getting the experience around here. I'm not worried -- I think he'll be competing around here for a long time."

So it goes, and it will continue for the next wave of rookies. What's the saying in college sports: The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores? Sure, English would have loved the chance to continue his first Masters, but the lessons left from this first step into the next giant leap of the game will remain.

"Everyone tells you how it is and what's like, but you don't really know until you are out there," English said. "This is how you learn. This is what makes you better next year and [at the U.S. Open] in June."

Now that English's first Masters is in the books -- granted, it was finished two chapters short of his design after he missed the cut with a 6-over 150 -- it's a better question to ask what could be for the 24-year-old former Baylor School star who already has more than $5.9 million in career golf earnings and carries himself with the poise of the game's royalty and the nerves of a pickpocket.

So it goes for the kid who left his South Georgia home roughly a decade ago to visit Baylor because his golf game needed to be challenged. As his mom tells it, the two of them headed north from Moultrie, Ga., and she reminded him that they were just looking at Baylor. He fell in love the place -- a "perfect fit," she called it -- and Martha moved to Black Creek, and the combination of school and community helped Harris continue to grow on and off the course.

"He's such a class act," said Baylor headmaster Scott Wilson, who was among a gaggle of Chattanoogans following English's every swing Friday.

His friends and family were living and swooning with each swing, but English seemed relaxed with the process despite only getting halfway to the goal of making the cut. His growth continued Friday and will be committed to memory, even if the final score was not that memorable.

"I learned so much this week," English said with a tone that sounded more grateful than frustrated Friday afternoon, "and I can use that experience.

"The huge crowds, the course, the tough pins, the conditions, getting mentally prepared, that's all part of it, and no matter how much you practice you have to experience it."

Experience can be a harsh teacher, especially here where the stakes are huge and the stage even bigger. But if we learn anything from history, it's that English is an apt student and this is just the first step toward the next goal.