2007 Masters: Augusta’s Taylor feels the heat competing in hometown major

Augusta, Ga. | It’s hard growing up in Augusta. At least if your plan, from the time you’re old enough to peer over the gallery ropes, is to make a living playing a game that transformed this sleepy backwater town into the annual center of the golf universe.

Charles Howell III, the city’s prodigal son who was taught the game less than a wedge shot from the home of the Masters at Augusta Country Club, learned how hard hometown expectations can be when he played his first Masters in 2002.

Vaughn Taylor – who grew up playing Goshen Plantation, far removed from the hallowed grounds of Augusta National – discovered how weighty the hopes of an entire city could be last year, when he missed the cut. This year he entered new territory, getting into contention on the weekend.

But expectations have a way of seeping through even the most air-tight resolve. Like most of the field, Taylor was battered by Saturday’s deep freeze and on Sunday an ice cold putter (he took a field-worst 36 putts) dropped him into a tie for 10th.

“I felt it this weekend,” said Taylor, who finished with rounds of 77-75. “I kind of let it get to me. I was relaxed all week, but started to really feel it on Saturday and Sunday.”

The pressure, self-imposed or external, is understandable. For an aspiring young pro growing up on the banks of the Savannah River, the gates of Augusta National are an ever-present beacon.

John Engler can relate. The former Clemson standout has been dreaming of Sunday charges and green jackets since he picked up a club.

“It’s tough, we see (Augusta National) all the time,” said Engler, who played the PGA Tour last year. “You always have people asking when you’re going to get there.”

For his second loop around the Masters, Taylor simplified his approach and shut out the distractions as best he could. On Tuesday night he had a barbecue at his new house on the river with a few friends and family, and topped it off with his mom’s homemade ice cream.

“Everybody around me is talking about winning, but I’m just trying to downplay any exceptions,” Taylor said.

For two rounds, Taylor’s plan worked.

On Day 1, paired with Gary Player, he played like Seve Ballesteros in his prime.

The Augustan missed his first seven greens, but escaped with seven pars, and capped the trick with a rabbit-out-of-his-hat birdie at the 12th when he holed his shot from the front bunker.

Opening 71-72 left Taylor alone in third place, a shot behind the leaders and within 36 holes of a simmering dream that first crystallized when he watched Larry Mize become the first Augustan to win a green jacket with his dramatic chip-in on the second playoff hole in 1987.

Late Sunday, under the shadow of Augusta National’s venerable clubhouse, Taylor watched his friend Zach Johnson slip the coveted green jacket over his shoulders, consoled by the knowledge he’ll be back next year, hopefully ready for the pressure and the challenge.

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