By Larry Fine
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Left-handers are winning the Masters and Europeans are being shut out, raising the question of whether there is a reason or just the latest turn of a cycle at Augusta National.
Lefties went 40 years between major titles, from the British Open triumph by New Zealander Bob Charles in 1963 until Canadian Mike Weir won the 2003 Masters.
Now you can hardly stop them. Following Weir, southpaws Phil Mickelson and fellow American Bubba Watson have accounted for five Masters wins in the last 11 years.
The European Ryder Cup team, meanwhile, has become nearly invincible, beating the U.S. side in eight of the last 10 match-play contests, but Europe has failed to produce a Masters winner since Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain in 1999.
"It's just cycles," former victorious U.S. Ryder Cup captain and former major winner Paul Azinger told Reuters.
"Anybody can win at any time. You just got to look for the player that's got some power and can drum up some magic around the greens. That's what's required here. You have to be magical around the greens."
Mickelson conceded that the course set up better for lefties. "There are holes that sit better for left-handed players," said Big Lefty, the 2004, 2006 and 2010 champion.
Said Watson: "It's the only course I've won twice at, so it's pretty good."
Augusta National always favored a right-to-left draw for right-handed players, but after Tiger Woods began making mincemeat of Augusta National's par-fives with his length off the tees, 'Tiger proofing' measures were taken.
Masters officials strategically planted some trees to promote accuracy off the tee and lengthened several holes. A left-hander's cut shot is easier to control than a draw, swinging the balance toward the portsiders.
FRIENDLIER TO LEFTIES
Mickelson acknowledged that Augusta National had turned friendlier to lefties since when he first played it in 1991.
"There are a number of holes where you want to move the ball right-to-left -- like the tee shot on 10, tee shot on 13, tee shot on nine," he said. "There are holes that hitting a cut makes it a lot easier."
Mickelson's successes moved Germany's Martin Kaymer, whose right-handed fade did not fit Augusta, to moan: "I wish I could play the Masters left-handed. I can fade it all day. And if you're left-handed, that's what you get to do."
English Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter said that was a key to Europe's recent Augusta struggles.
"Left-handers have won six of the last 12 Masters," Poulter told England's Telegraph.
"And, to my mind, they have an advantage at Augusta, particularly the big-hitting lefties like Bubba (Watson) and Phil (Mickelson). I can't think of any high-profile big-hitting left-handers who are European, so there you go."
European players once ruled at Augusta. Between 1980 and 1999, Europe won 11 Masters, including five of six from 1988.
Said world number two Henrik Stenson of Sweden: "There's been a couple of close calls obviously, and I'm sure we'll see European winners here in the near future."
The near future could come as soon as Sunday as world number one Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland enters as the betting favorite with a chance to complete the career grand slam.
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)