Nicolas Colsaerts’ face lights up at the mention of Augusta National Golf Club. A coming-of-age sensation at 30, his enthusiasm will not be surpassed by any of the younger Masters Tournament rookies in the field.
“I’ve always wanted to go there since I was a little kid,” said Colsaerts, the talented Belgian power hitter nicknamed the “Muscles from Brussels.” “I remember watching it in the morning when I woke up since I was 7 or 8 years old. It’s going to be quite special to go for the first time and see how much I think I know the place and to see what it’s really all about. It’s like I’ve been playing this for 20 years in my head.”
Like most European golfers who have grown up studying Augusta National only on television, Colsaerts is eager to test his game on the real thing. The longest driving player on the European Tour in 2012 (318.3 yards) and 2010 (307.7), with the ability to hit unnaturally towering 4-irons that land like wedges, Colsaerts seemingly has a skill set perfectly suited for Augusta National.
He took a post-Doral trip to sneak a peek at the course with his caddie, Robert Nilsson.
“As much as you want advice from other players, you still want to make your own ideas about the place and how you want to play certain holes,” he said. “There’s always a fine line when having very good advice from other people and just showing up at a place and playing it how you feel it should be. I guess it’s one of these places that you really have to know a lot and you have to play there a bunch of times before you have all the angles covered up.”
Perhaps more than any of the 17 rookies in this year’s Masters field, Colsaerts is considered the one with the most potential to pull off what Fuzzy Zoeller did in 1979 and win on his first attempt.
“There’s always a possibility,” he said with a smile. “Just as much as any major, you need a bit of luck to go your way.”
Colsaerts’ recent big-stage breakthroughs have elevated that potential.
He was one of Europe’s top two contenders after 36 holes in last year’s U.S. Open at Olympic, rallying from a pair of opening double bogeys to get into the weekend hunt before ultimately tying for 27th. A month later in the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Colsaerts rode bookend 65s to a seventh-place finish.
“I’d like to think my game suits most of the tournaments we play around,” he said. “I did all right at the U.S. Open. I did really well at the British Open. So I can adapt to the conditions of what’s asked and what the course asks pretty quickly. I guess the only thing is trying to deal with this big Masters thing as well as you can.”
If what Colsaerts did in golf’s most pressure-packed environment at the Ryder Cup in Medinah was any indication, nerves won’t be a problem.
Making his Ryder Cup debut in front of hostile Chicago crowds in a Friday afternoon fourball against Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker, Colsaerts hoisted partner Lee Westwood on his shoulders and won the critical match with eight birdies and an eagle on his own ball. His performance – which just talking about it raises goose bumps on Colsaerts and his caddie – kept Europe from falling into an almost insurmountable 6-2 opening day pit and was hailed by Woods as “probably the best putting display I have ever seen.”
“You deal with that in a different way,” Colsaerts said. “There’s all this buildup and there are 12 of you guys and everybody is working in the same direction. It’s very different than playing on your own. I don’t think I would have been able to pull it off if I didn’t really feel 11 other teammates backing me up as much as they did.”
He expects Augusta will be very different, if no less tense.
“It’s probably different at the Masters because you’re just happy to be there and probably have to look around and just realize what a nice environment you’re in,” he said. “Smell the roses, as they say.”
Belgium’s golf history isn’t the richest in continental Europe, and its Masters legacy runs thin.
Flory Van Donck, widely regarded as the greatest Belgian golfer, won more than 50 tournaments worldwide over three decades starting in the late 1930s, including a record seven on the European tour in 1953. He finished runner-up in the British Open in 1956 and ’59 during a stretch of nine top-10 finishes in 12 consecutive Opens. Only once did Van Donck compete in the Masters, tying for 32nd in the 1958 tournament won by Arnold Palmer.
While Van Donck is the only Belgian before Colsaerts to play at Augusta, he wasn’t the only one invited. Donald Swaelens received a coveted invitation Dec. 22, 1974, five months after tying for seventh in the British Open won by Gary Player at Royal Lytham. However, Swaelens was soon after diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Too sick to make the journey for the 1975 Masters, he died April 25, 1975, at age 34.
“He was one of the very promising Belgian players and was getting a good name for himself,” said Colsaerts, who won the Donald Swaelens Memorial Challenge in 1998, an event first won by Seve Ballesteros in 1976.
Colsaerts’ emergence as a force in world golf has generated plenty of interest in Belgium.
“It’s a very small golfing community back home,” he said. “Just as they were very excited about what happened at the Ryder Cup. We did get a bit more followers interested in what we do. It’s just another step. These last two years I had all these new things come to me – getting to the majors, getting to the Ryder Cup and now the Masters for the first time. It’s very cool to have new adventures to come your way when you’re 30 and being around for so long.”
The experience, he expects, will be memorable.
“I look forward to Magnolia Lane, of course, and I’m actually quite curious to see this little Par-3 thing,” he said. “My dad is going to caddie for me, and it’s something he looks quite forward to a lot.”
Over time, Colsaerts hopes to introduce the Masters to as many Belgians as he can.
“The phone’s been ringing for months, but we’re trying to keep it on a tight group,” he said of the family that will accompany him. “I imagine I’m going to be there many times, so everybody who doesn’t get a yes this time is going to be put on the list for the next couple years.”