Friday 9 December 2016

Can Rory McIlroy complete career Grand Slam? Five talking points ahead of US Masters

Phil Casey

Published 04/04/2016 | 20:47

Rory McIlroy with the Claret Jug
Rory McIlroy with the Claret Jug

With the first major of the year just days away, Press Association Sport looks at five talking points ahead of the Masters at Augusta National.

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1. Can Rory McIlroy complete the career grand slam?

McIlroy's first attempt to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in winning all four major titles ended in noble failure, the 26-year-old finishing fourth with a 12-under-par total which has only been bettered four times since 2000.

It was McIlroy's misfortune that two rounds of 71 left him in an incredible 12 shots behind the record pace set by Jordan Spieth, meaning that scores of 68 and 66 on the weekend succeeded only in cutting his deficit in half.

However, that still represented McIlroy's best finish at Augusta - he was eighth in 2014 and 15th after blowing a four-shot lead in 2011 - and the four-time major winner believes he is better equipped to deal with the hype this time around.

The Irishman is disappointed to be the only player in the world's top six not to have won so far in 2016, but could benefit from the focus being spread between other potential champions.

2. Can Spieth defend his title?

The answer to that question appeared an unequivocal 'yes' when the 22-year-old started the year by shooting 30 under par to win the Tournament of Champions by eight shots in Hawaii, but all has not been well since.

Spieth admitted he needed to lower his expectations after a phenomenal 2015 and conceded that losing his status as world number one to the in-form Jason Day might work in his favour heading to Augusta, hardly the statements of a man in top form.

Playing partner Henrik Stenson felt a busy worldwide schedule meant Spieth was "running a bit out of steam" following the American's opening 76 in the defence of his Valspar Championship title, while a 79 in the Northern Trust Open was the worst opening round of Spieth's career.

3. Is a shock winner possible?

Since Darren Clarke and Keegan Bradley won the last two majors of 2011 when ranked 111th and 108th in the world respectively, the lowest-ranked winner of any major has been Ernie Els, who was 40th when he won the 2012 Open at Lytham.

In 2015, Spieth was fourth and second respectively before his Masters and US Open triumphs, Zach Johnson 25th before winning the Open at St Andrews and Day fifth before his victory in the US PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

With Spieth, Day, Bubba Watson, Adam Scott and Charl Schwartzel all in the winner's circle already in 2016, the smart money will be on a player inside the world's top 20 keeping the trend going at Augusta.

4. Can a European triumph again?

The sad news that double Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal would not be able to compete due to illness brought home the fact that the Spaniard's second victory in 1999 remains the last by a European, a stark contrast to the time when Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Olazabal enjoyed unrivalled success at Augusta.

Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy, Paul Casey and Ian Poulter all finished inside the top six last year, while Sweden's Jonas Blixt and Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez were second and fourth respectively in 2014, so a win is obviously not out of the question. But with former champions in form and Day on top of the world, the task will not be easy.

5. Will the Masters ring the changes?

Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player have acted as honorary starters at the Masters since 2012, with each member of golf's original "Big Three" hitting tee shots on the opening hole before retiring to the clubhouse.

With the 86-year-old Palmer stepping down this year due to a lingering shoulder injury, tournament officials might be looking for a replacement, but it is worth bearing in mind that the number of starters has varied from none to three over the years, with Palmer starting out on his own in 2007 after no starter was employed between 2003 and 2006.

As long as Nicklaus and Player are willing and able, it appears likely they will continue together for years to come.

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