McElhinney reflects on Amen Corner

By Brian Keogh

Twelve months ago, Brian McElhinney stood at Amen Corner, quaking in his spikes and praying to stay dry.

And even a year later, as he prepares to battle his way through the humble surroundings of the EuroPro Tour, Augusta is on his mind.

Recalling the heart-wrenching tension of it all, the mild-mannered swinger from Burnfoot in Donegal looked back at the moment that makes any other golfing challenge seem tame by comparison.

Drifting off to Georgia, he said: "The one hole that stands out for me is the 12th - the 155 yard par three.

"It really is as tricky as they make it out to be because the wind swirls so much down in that part of Amen Corner."

Known as "Golden Bell", the 12th is one of golf's great cathedrals and the thousands of spectators waiting to see if you carry Rae's Creek and make a birdie only add to the tension of the moment.

Playing with Tom Watson and US Open champion Michael Campbell, the reigning British Amateur champion remembered how he had overshot the shallow green with a nine-iron in a first round of 80 and made bogey.

Now, he was simply hoping to finish the Masters with his dignity intact.

But what happened before his eyes made an already difficult shot seem almost impossible.

Paul McGinley, Charles Howell and Fuzzy Zoeller had just hit off in the group ahead.

Only Zoeller stayed dry as the swirling wind tricked McGinley and Howell and they came up short in a watery grave.

Watson, twice a winner of the green jacket stood up next and also found water. So did Campbell.

McElhinney recalled: "When it was our turn, I was up last on the tee and Watson and Campbell had just hit it into the water in front of me.

"So I was just after watching four guys out of five hit it into the water in front of me and that's not great for your confidence.

"Eventually I hit a five iron just off the back of the green and made my three. But the day before it was just a nine-iron and I hit that over the back of the green as well but made bogey. So that's how much it can change in two days."

McElhinney, now 24, shot 75 that day and he admits that he has found life difficult since he took the plunge into the professional ranks last May.

In 2006, he took up eight invitations on the European Challenge Tour but made just three cuts and earned a paltry €3,590.

This year he is already €15,000 to the good thanks to a grant from the Team Ireland Golf Trust.

And while he is unlikely to get more than a handful of Challenge Tour starts this year, he is hoping that he can do well enough on the third tier EuroPro Tour to start the slow climb up the professional ranks.

An Augusta return is nothing more than a dream right now but the former Irish, European and British champion sees no reason why he can't make it back to Magnolia Lane some time in the future.

Asked if he could see himself playing another Masters, he said: "Well, you have got to keep trying, that's for sure. It could be a good bit away for me yet, but maybe some day.

"If you ever needed something to spur you on to work hard, that would be it. Having been there and played in the tournament and experienced everything that comes with it, you really want to get back again.

"It's hard to believe that it's a year since I played in the Masters. It will be nice to watch it on TV having played the course and watch them hit shots into greens where I hit shots.

"I know some of the putts they will have and they look pretty easy on TV but believe me, there is nothing easy there.

"It is so easy to make silly mistakes on those greens because they are so fast and have such incredible slopes.

"It is hard to pick out one memory from the week but what struck me was the crowds that were there for the practice days.

"I got there early and there were no fans there at all until the office practice days started. Then all of a sudden there were 50,000 knocking about - it was just like a tournament day."

That par on the 12th - Golden Bell - is a treasured memory. But McElhinney must dismiss it from his thoughts if he is to emerge from the hundreds of hopefuls who will play on the EuroPro Tour this year with their golfing dreams intact.

Determined to stay the course, McElhinney said: "For the moment my main ambition is to play well on the EuroPro Tour and hopefully finish in the top five in the money list and get a good Challenge Tour card.

"I've been doing a wee bit more in the gym this winter and working hard with my coach. So I can't wait to get out there and see how I go.

"The money from the Team Ireland Golf Trust is going to be a great help. Financially, it is hard to play everything that you want to play and you have to limit your schedule.

"But it should be a lot better this year and I will be able to concentrate on what I have to do.

"I only played eight events on the Challenge Tour last through through invitations and it was a tough first year as a professional.

"I didn't play great and that makes this harder. With only eight starts, it was hard to get into a rhythm compared to the amateur days when you are playing tournaments from week to week.

"You just have to play well and often because the standard on the Challenge Tour is very high.

"I learned a lot from the experience, getting used to the travelling and how things work generally as well.

"I haven't got a tour card and that means that I will have to concentrate on the EuroPro Tour and take it from there."

After coming through the Masters and that terrifying 12th hole trauma, McElhinney knows that anything is possible.