Dec 29, 2010

Laird looks forward to masters

Finishing dead last at an event is no cause for celebration, but for Scottish golfer Martin Laird, September's US Tour Championship was still special.

Just being among the 30-strong elite field in Atlanta (not even Tiger Woods managed it) meant that Laird had qualified for a debut at golf's most glamorous tournament - The Masters at Augusta next April.
Martin Laird
His first appearance among the azaleas and dogwood will come at the age of 28 and that alone tells you this has been no meteoric rise like that of Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer or Matteo Manassero.

But Laird has done enough in the last two seasons to suggest he could be one of the stars of 2011.

The Glaswegian, still relatively unknown on this side of the Atlantic after going to college in the States and staying there, began last year 268th in the world but has made it all the way into the top 50.

He has also become the first Scottish winner on the US Tour since Sandy Lyle at the 1988 Masters - and there could so easily have been two more victories this season.

Matt Kuchar came up with a wondrous shot to beat him in sudden death at the first of the FedEx Cup play-offs - Laird had three-putted the last - and then in the defence of his Las Vegas title Jonathan Byrd produced a hole-in-one no less at the fourth play-off hole.

"I'm not a goal-setter. My goal is just to get better every year and I feel like I've done that," Laird said.

"The only thing I have felt has been holding me back has been my putting and since I started working with Dave Stockton Jnr it's been good.

"I feel like if I keep that up and keep my ball-striking where it was or even get it a little better I know I can move way up the world rankings and start challenging in majors and things.

"You look at guys like Kaymer and (Graeme) McDowell winning, it gives you motivation to be up there with them."

Just as US Open champion McDowell did, he really blossomed as a player in his college days - Colorado in his case - but while the Northern Irishman then won only his fourth European Tour event, it was a long time before Laird's professional career had lift-off.

"My first year on the Nationwide Tour (2005) I played terribly and lost my card," he recalls.

In 19 starts he had only one top-25 finish and six missed cuts in his last seven tournaments left him with earnings for the year of less than $19,000 (£11,500).

On his return to the circuit in 2007, however, he won over a quarter of a million dollars and on graduating to the main Tour the money alone has been an indicator of his progress - more than $850,000 two years ago, $1.3million last season and $2.1million this.

The better Laird does in the US, the more chance there is of him adding to his rare appearances in Europe so far, especially once Ryder Cup qualifying begins in September.

His European Tour debut did not come until last year's Scottish Open. He came 10th after starting with a 65, but has already bettered that with a fifth place at October's Dunhill Links Championship.

In the Open though he has made two early exits, crashing out of St Andrews this summer with a nightmare second-round 83, and desperately wants to improve on that at Sandwich in July.

The Dunhill was a big confidence-booster in that regard.

"I think I was paying the Old Course a little too much respect at the Open. I wanted to come back and almost prove to myself that I can play links golf because my record was not very good.

"I definitely can control any ball flight a little better now and that's something that's good going forward."

Augusta is the ultimate examination of that and in April Laird finally has the chance to take that test.
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