HE had to offer a quick apology to Ian Woosnam in making the observation but Rory McIlroy believes as many as 70 players will set out here this week with a chance of becoming Masters champion on Sunday.
Some in the room felt the two-times major winner was joking but that wasn’t the case. Heading into an event that looks wide open, McIlroy insists very few in the field don’t hold title credentials.
“I would say 70,” he replied to being asked how many people he felt could come out on top in a 97-strong field. “There’s a few past champions that play that might not be able to compete. There might be a few first-timers or a few amateurs that won’t compete either.”
At that point, the draw was slipped to him by an Augusta National official and McIlroy started go through it in order only to find himself making an apology after writing off Woosnam, the 1991 winner. “Stewart Cink, Tim Clark, Ian Woosnam, no – sorry, Woosie, didn’t mean that!”
Trying to explain the point he’d been trying to make, he added: “I’m talking about the people that are playing regularly on the PGA Tour – but sorry again Woosie.”
Two of the players McIlroy had in mind are two of America’s rising stars, Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth, and he’ll have them for company in the opening two rounds. “Both of them are coming here for the first time this week,” he noted of Reed, winner of the WGC-Cadillac Championship last month, and Spieth, last year’s PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. “But they are going to stand on the first tee on Thursday and think, ‘I’ve got a great shot at winning this tournament’.”
McIlroy, of course, had a golden chance of doing just that when he held a four-shot lead in the final round in 2011 only to spill six shots on the back nine as Charl Schwartzel claimed victory. “The morning after that is the only time I’ve cried over golf,” he recalled of that painful experience. It’s also one, though, that he has used as a positive.
“It was a very important day in my career,” he added. “It was a big learning curve for me. And I don’t know if I had not had that day, would I be the person and the player that I am sitting here because I learned so much from it.
“I learned exactly what not to do under pressure and contention, and I definitely learned from that day how to handle my emotions better on the course.”
Heading into his sixth Masters appearance, McIlroy’s first target is to put himself in contention again. “I want to at least have a chance to win,” he said. “And, any time you drive through the gates here, it sort of lights the fire up inside you.”