GARY Player becomes an official starter for The Masters this week – and he is tipping Rory McIlroy to end the week as winner.
The Northern Irishman will be looking to avoid a repeat of last year’s final-round meltdown in Augusta, and Player is in no doubt McIlroy has the mental strength to come out on top. “I think Rory has a little revenge in his heart for the golf course,” said Player, who will join Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer on Thursday morning to hit the ceremonial opening drives.
“You remember last year he was playing so well and was leading and he had that collapse in the final round with an 80. The way he recovered from that upset at the US Open a couple of months later showed what maturity he has.”
But Player, who is writing a blog on the tournament for the Laureus Sports Awards website, expects Tiger Woods to be a danger to the Northern Irishman.
“He played extremely well when he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational the week before last – it’s the first time I’ve seen him drive the ball well in a long time. He’s going to be very, very tough at Augusta. He knows the course (Woods is a four-time winner), he’s confident. He’s had a tough time for two years and he’s very hungry – I expect him to do extremely well.
“Can Tiger beat Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championship wins? His two years away from the game has certainly disrupted what seemed to be an inevitable progression to that record. To what degree, I don’t know. He certainly has the ability to do it, but it would be very foolish to predict what would happen because he has got to win five more majors to pass Jack – a very difficult task.
“But he is a man with such focus and dedication and hunger, I don’t see anyone else quite like that in the game today.”
Woods has been stuck on 14 since the 2008 US Open. He underwent knee reconstruction surgery after that and was out for eight months, then had more time off after becoming embroiled in a sex scandal that cost him his marriage to Swede Elin Nordegren. Despite those lay-offs he has finished fourth in the last two Masters.
Meanwhile, Justin Rose is not worried about possible jinxes or bad omens as he builds up to the Masters. If the chance comes to win the eve-of-tournament par-3 competition at Augusta National tomorrow, Rose will be trying to take it – just like Luke Donald did last April and Padraig Harrington did two years in a row.
The pitch-and-putt fun event was introduced in 1960 and nobody has ever gone on to become Masters champion four days later.
Raymond Floyd came closest when he lost a play-off to Nick Faldo in 1990, while Donald was joint fourth. “Someone is going to do it one year,” said Rose, whose world championship victory in Miami four weeks ago has given him the belief that a first major title may not be very far away. “I’m not one for superstitions and I think it’s an old wives’ tale. If I’m leading with a hole to play I’ll be going for it.”
Rose loves the fact that McIlroy’s return to the course where he collapsed with an 80 last year and Tiger Woods winning at Bay Hill a fortnight ago has enabled him to slip more quietly into Augusta. “I’m nicely under the radar,” said Rose.
As for whether Woods, McIlroy or world No 1 Donald should be favourite for the week, the 31-year-old had a neat answer. “I think Sean Foley is the favourite,” he said. Foley is coach to Woods, Rose and to Hunter Mahan, who had his second victory of the season in the Houston Open this weekend.
Rose and Donald are regarded as two of the best in the game out of sand, with plenty of it around the Augusta National greens.
Most of the players practised for at least nine holes yesterday, but Darren Clarke’s caddie Phil “Wobbly” Morbey walked the course without a bag on his back. Open champion Clarke suffered a groin injury in the second round of the Houston Open on Friday and has been receiving treatment since missing the halfway cut there.
Morbey said, however, that he was fully expecting the Northern Irishman at the course today. This is Clarke’s first Masters since 2007, while 1999 Open champion Paul Lawrie’s climb back into the world top 50 has given him his first start in the tournament since 2004.