Heading into the much-anticipated opening major of the season, McIlroy may be focused on trying to join Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods in golf’s career Grand Slam club.
But the four-times major winner spoke in glowing terms about Neil as he reflected on his practice round with the 19-year-old Amateur champion from Blairgowrie at Augusta National on Monday. “I rate his game really highly,” said McIlroy as he delivered a sincere observation rather than the normal platitudes offered in such instances. “He looks ready as his game is right there. He’s very impressive and hits it a long way.
“He’s still quite a young guy, but doesn’t seem to be in awe of anything. So I just told him to go out there and enjoy it. Don’t second guess yourself, commit to your shots, be decisive – all the things I tell myself.”
Neil, who could be set to be handed another big boost by signing for one of the leading management companies today – he can do that while still retaining his amateur status – will join McIlroy in the paid ranks later this year. He could make the switch after playing in the US Open at Chambers Bay – another of the rewards for winning the amateur game’s blue riband event at Royal Portrush last summer – or wait until the Walker Cup at Royal Lytham in September.
“If he feels ready, then he should go ahead and do it,” added McIlroy, who was 18 when he joined the paid ranks in 2007, having won the Silver Medal for leading amateur in the Open Championship at Carnoustie that year.
“He’s definitely got the game. He’s got the game to do well. Even though he grew up playing links golf, he hits it quite high and he can flight it. I can see him one day coming over here and doing well on the PGA Tour. He has the game for the style of golf to suit playing over here.”
McIlroy revealed it was his idea to offer Neil the chance of a practice round here and is hoping it benefits the teenager when he heads out along with his compatriot and 1988 winner, Sandy Lyle, as well as Korean Sung-Yul Noh in the first round tomorrow.
“I remember saying to him at the Ryder Cup last year, ‘if you want to play a practice round at Augusta, just let me know’. I gave him my number and just let him decide if he wanted to.
“I remember my first time here, getting to play with a few of the guys that I looked up to when I was at that point in my career. Yesterday was a nice experience for me, as well, just to see how much he was enjoying it. It’s a great thrill to be here for the first time.”
McIlroy, who will have Niall Horan, a member of pop band One Direction caddying for him in the Par 3 Tournament today, is pleased to have seen some of the focus taken off him so far this week by Tiger Woods’ much-anticipated return after a two-month break.
“It’s such a big story that he’s coming back at The Masters after a bit of a lengthy period when he has not been around,” said the 25-year-old, who will have American duo Phil Mickelson and Ryan Moore for company in the opening two rounds. “But still I’m just here to play golf. You guys can write the stories, I won’t read them and we’ll move on.”
Asked if he’d been concerned to see Woods playing so badly before taking his enforced break, a smiling McIlroy added: “Not really. It is hard to be concerned for someone that’s already won 14 majors, 80 PGA Tour events and earned over a billion dollars in his career. I think he’s done okay. But it’s great that he’s making his first start back here as it would have been a bad thing for the game if he had not been able to come back.”
Stephen Gallacher, who played with Neil as well as Irishman Shane Lowry yesterday, has Swede Jonas Blixt and American Kevin Streelman in his group for the first two days. Having gone out with Jose Maria Olazabal and Miguel Angel Jimenez, the Lothians man is delighted with his preparation for a second successive appearance here.
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