Sunday 11 December 2016

Rory McIlroy has artillery to blow rival big guns out of the water

Rory targeting a 'good start' in bid to complete career Slam as star names draw their weapons

Published 07/04/2016 | 02:30

Ireland's Shane Lowry is going to be playing his second Masters ever. Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Ireland's Shane Lowry is going to be playing his second Masters ever. Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

"Are we there yet, are we there yet?"

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The plaintive cry from the back seat of the car known to frustrated parents the world over.

That's how it has been to a certain extent in the build-up to the 80th Masters at Augusta.

Waiting, wondering, speculating, impatient for the action to begin.

Yesterday around the clubhouse area and the big tree under which traditionally the players stop and chat to the media and friends, the question to be heard in various forms and with increasing frequency as the day wore on, was: "who's going to win this thing?"

Rory? Jordan? Jason? Maybe Bubba. Could be Phil, don't rule him out.

Rickie is lurking, quietly focused on breaking into the ranks of Major tournament winners.

Henrik Stenson, got to give him a chance after a tied-third at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and runner-up in last Sunday's Shell Houston Open.

Is it time for the Rose, as in Justin, to bloom, two years after his maiden Major victory at the US Open?

Ominously, perhaps, the projected weather forecast, particularly the wind element, intruded into the eve-of-battle assessments.

Rain is forecast, and winds could gust up to 30mph today. What effect will that have on the scoring today?

There was a slight chill around Augusta despite the sunshine and the flags fluttered briskly as the breeze increased.

Thousands flocked to the course to sample the atmosphere, many of them availing of their only chance to see the players live, either on the course in practice or at the fun event, the Par Three contest.

Pressure

'Fun' is not the word which will apply to the main protagonists today, however much they talk about just going out there and enjoying themselves.

Rory McIlroy has the pressure of seeking the career Grand Slam; Jason Day needs to push on and add to his sole Major title, the 2015 US PGA championship; Jordan Spieth is busting a gut to follow up a dream campaign last year and convince himself that he can recapture that level of consistency.

They know they have every weapon they need in their armoury to achieve their goals this week, and into the future.

The players also know the vagaries of golf. It's pressure, and however much McIlroy wants to believe the old adage 'pressure is for tyres', you can bet he will feel it today, especially having to wait to tee off in the last group alongside Martin Kaymer and Bill Haas at 2.01 local time (7.01pm Irish).

"I think it's imperative to get off to a great start here, a good start," he said. "You look at a lot of Masters champions in the past, they have been right up there from the first day.

"I really think it is important, especially for me, to get off to a good start. That's been the thing that's held me back the last couple of years, and I'll try to change that."

Spieth, like McIlroy, seeks that balance of patience and focus that can allow him play his best golf, and he wants to hit the ground running - metaphorically of course, at this club which does not allow anyone to run anywhere.

"I hope I get off to a good start. If I don't, then I'm going to have to reach down deep and really stay patient and let birdies come to me," he said.

" I think recently I've been trying very, very hard to almost too passionate to make birdies wherever I'm at to get on these runs like I did early Sunday in Houston.

"And on this type of golf course, that's easy to do, as well. You play these par-fives and you think, the winners from the previous whatever years have all played these par-fives so well.

"Well, that's something that's easy to think about here (in the media centre), but you let 'em come to you, you let the birdies come to you."

Day has arrived in fine fettle, with two tournament wins in the bag at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the WGC-Dell Match Play.

All he has to do is keep the magic flowing to give himself a terrific chance of winning a Green Jacket.

Easily said, difficult to deliver, and for Day, the trick is to hold himself in check and avoid trying too hard to make things happen.

"I need to relax. I know there's certain steps I need to take to read putts or get information, or how to execute a golf shot. I've just got to through that normal pattern and try and do it that way rather than missing a step, or trying mentally too hard," he said.

Frustration and blood pressure levels tend to rise in proportion to a player's putting stats at Augusta.

The speed and slopes of the greens are such that former Open champion David Duval said on the Golf Channel that a player could hit 18 greens at Augusta and shoot 90.

Phil Mickelson, he of the legendary short game, aims to switch between the claw grip and a conventional grip on various putts according to his assessment of the requirements on a particular putt.

Graeme McDowell placed great emphasis on his pitching and putting in his homework for the tournament, hoping to improve on his poor record at the Masters which includes five missed cuts in eight previous appearances.

Shane Lowry plays only his second Masters. A year since his debut, he comes to Augusta with confidence and status enhanced by that WGC-Bridgestone triumph last season.

Lowry has done his best to make the most of the missed cut at the Shell Houston Open last Friday.

His relative inexperience in the first Major of the season counts against placing him in the 'likely winners' category, but if the man from Clara, County Offaly can get the putter working, he could have a decent tournament.

Darren Clarke, alas, does not inspire hopes of a significant threat to the leaderboard.

Three years short of his 50th birthday, the Ryder Cup captain knows his five-year exemption following the 2011 Open Championship success ends this year. He did make the cut last year, and surviving to the weekend would represent an achievement for Clarke.

Bubba Watson has two Green Jackets and despite a sinus infection which left him bedridden for around 30 hours earlier in the week, he can present a significant threat to the ambitions of McIlroy, Spieth and Day.

Watson annexed the Northern Trust Open in February. He drives the ball prodigious distances, and when he is 'on', his imagination allows him shape the ball any way he wants.

If he has an Achilles heel this year, it's the ten footers on the greens that have caused him most frustration.

Get those sorted, and Watson can make a real run at the tournament.

His namesake, Tom Watson, is certain to receive a hero's welcome as he embarks on the last Masters of an illustrious career.

The 66-year-old nailed his colours to the mast by unequivocally backing Rory McIlroy for the win this week.

"He's my guy, he's my pick this week," said Watson.

Forty-nine years have passed since the legendary amateur Joe Carr became the first Irishman to grace the Masters. He made the cut and finished 55th. Ten years after Carr's debut, Christy O'Connor Jnr was the first Irish professional to play in the tournament.

Now, in 2016, McIlroy stands on verge of an historic achievement.

Prediction: 1 Rory McIlroy; 2 Jason Day; 3 Justin Rose; 4 Jordan Spieth

The Masters,

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