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The Masters: Stephen Gallacher's long road from hell to heaven

Let's hope quaint, tranquil Augusta National is ready for the invasion.

Stephen Gallacher can't wait to make his debut at Augusta   Photograph: Getty
Stephen Gallacher can't wait to make his debut at Augusta Photograph: Getty

"I think there are 17 coming out and that includes family, friends, sponsors; the people who have been good to me in the past," said Stephen Gallacher as he mulled over the kind of recruitment drive not seen since Kitchener pointed his stern finger at a nation.

He has not had a difficult job bolstering numbers. An invitation to spend a week at the Masters doesn't come round too often, after all. "I'll need a good result to cover the price of the tickets," added Gallacher with a smile as he limbered up for his first appearance in the opening Major of the season in this celebrated corner of Georgia.

The Scot is used to digging deep. Five years ago, Gallacher was back among the rank and file at the European Tour's qualifying school following a season which saw him miss nine cuts in a row before spending four months on the sidelines with a debilitating viral infection. Today, he is 37th in the world, playing some of the best golf of his career and reaping the rewards.

"I'm very proud of what I've done over the last few years," reflected the 39-year-old as he looked back to that concerning period when his lungs and joints were attacked by the infection known as sarcoidosis. "Those were very tough times. I was also tested for cancer with a biopsy. There was a 95% chance it was sarcoidosis but 5% it may have been cancer so those weren't a good few days. I had to go to tour school that year as I was only going to get 10 starts on a medical exemption the following year. It's been some rise again. It's been a lot of hard work and dedication and I never lost that will to win and get back out there again. I never doubted that I'd get back up there. I just knew it was going to be a long road back."

That long and winding road will lead him up Magnolia Lane this week where he will follow in the footsteps of Uncle Bernard, who made his one and only appearance in the Masters in 1970 and missed the cut by a stroke.

This clipped, trimmed, pruned and perfectly manicured piece of golfing real estate makes the floral art and grandiose gardens of Capability Brown look like a neglected compost heap in the corner of the communal allotment. Many have suggested that Augusta National is a bit like heaven....only harder to get in. Gallacher would agree with that. Now that he has the opportunity to stride through golf's equivalent of the Pearly Gates, however, the triple European Tour champion is determined to revel in its majesty.

"It's probably the most eagerly anticipated event I've played in because it is so hard to get into," said Gallacher, who will now complete the Major set having already teed-up in Opens, US Opens and US PGAs down the seasons. "It wasn't for the lack of trying. You have to be in the top 50 or you have to have won an American event. But my game is at the stage where I am up those rankings now and that has opened these kind of doors."

A sixth-place finish in a stellar field at the WGC Cadillac Champ- ionship in Florida last month provided further proof that Gallacher is finding his feet on American soil. Finding his feet on Augusta's teasing, tormenting terrain is the next challenge.

"I think I have settled more into American golf," he said. "You know more people, you know the scene. The first time you go, you're just happy to be there in many ways. Now I'm trying to compete and I've raised the bar for myself. I know first timers at the Masters find it tough. Historically it's always been a course that people say you need to know. The thing with Augusta is that everybody in the world knows where they want to put the ball, it's just doing it which is the tough thing. It's all about distance control. Miss it the wrong side here and you've no shot. Sometimes you're better in the bunker short, than five yards past the flag. I don't want to over play it though, I just have to treat it as a normal event. When the gun goes, all you can do is be as prepared as possible."

When that venerable trinity of honorary starters - Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer - get the 78th staging of the Masters up and running on Thursday, a 241-day wait for the return of Major championship golf will be over. The gap between the US PGA Championship, the final grand-slam event of the annual golfing calendar, and the traditional curtain raiser remains vast but it seems that this week's showpiece may still have arrived too soon for some.

It certainly has for Tiger Woods, who has already withdrawn following back surgery. Phil Mickelson, the three-time Masters champion, is facing a fight for both form and fitness following his prem-ature departure from last week's Texas Open with a nagging back niggle. Jason Day, second in 2011 and third last year, has not played a strokeplay event for two months - he did win February's WGC Matchplay Championship on his last outing though - but the Australian insists a bothersome thumb injury which has kept him on the sidelines has now healed.

Justin Rose, meanwhile, has also endured his aches and pains this year and the US Open champion, with only five events under his belt, may feel somewhat undercooked ahead of the bubbling pot of Augusta.

Adam Scott, the defending champion, has no such ailments but surrendering a seven-shot halfway lead in his last event at Bay Hill was a sore one, while Rory McIlroy's largely encouraging start to the year has just been missing that one thing; a win. He won't be the only man chasing one next week.

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