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Front nine crucial to Rory's bid


CHALLENGE: Rory McIlroy tees off on the third hole during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament in Augusta

CHALLENGE: Rory McIlroy tees off on the third hole during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament in Augusta

CHALLENGE: Rory McIlroy tees off on the third hole during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament in Augusta

Tiger Woods might have stumbled to the turn in 40 on day one before romping to a 12-shot maiden Masters win in 1997, but Rory McIlroy must conquer his first-nine hoodoo if he's to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National.

The Co Down man has frequently lamented his slow starts in Majors over the last six years, and while they say the Masters doesn't start until the back nine on Sunday, his troubles usually begin long before he reaches Amen Corner.

In 42 career rounds, the four-time Major winner has navigated what was (until 1935) the back nine in five-under-par compared to 15-under for the current back, and when you dissect his figures for the last five Masters, he's 16th overall on the front nine at four-under par but a whopping 24-under, and first, on the homeward stretch.

Statistician Justin Ray, who now works for data crunchers 'The 15th Club', has delved deeper into the numbers as McIlroy makes his sixth attempt at completing the coveted career Grand Slam.

"For what it's worth, all five of the men to complete the Slam did so within their first three chances at the final leg," he reported for Sky Sports this week before backing up Paul McGinley's assertion that the former world No 1 must improve his iron play to get the job done.

Not only is he ranked 24th in strokes gained in approach play over the last five years at Augusta, but he's also down from first to 82nd for that department on tour since golf returned from the lockdown in June.

The good news for McIlroy fans is he believes he has sorted out his fear of the left over the past eight weeks and if he gets up a head of steam, he could be highly dangerous on a soft golf course that will reward his length and aggressive style.

"Honestly, I do feel good," said McIlroy, who tees it up with world No 1 and obvious title favourite Dustin Johnson and the impressive but painfully slow Patrick Cantlay for the first two rounds. "I don't really have the fear of the left as I had sort of during the summer."

After making a career-best 29 birdies in his last start in the Zozo Championship, his only concern is avoiding the double-bogey or worse, which he managed for the first time in 11 Masters starts last year.

"This week, it's take advantage of the holes that you can, play smart on the other ones. And if you can do that and think a little bit better and concentrate a little bit more, and just limit your mistakes, that's always a good thing around here."

That he's won three of his four Majors on rain-softened courses is a plus for the pride of Holywood. But given the form of many of his rivals, he knows he is going to have to dig deeper than ever to keep up with form horses such as Johnson, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Tyrrell Hatton, Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele.

Add to that the pressure of trying to become just the sixth man to win all four Majors and the enterprise becomes even more challenging, even if he insists he has many more years ahead of him to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in golf's most exclusive club.

"I think I have gotten more comfortable with the fact that if it happens, great," McIlroy said of the challenge. "But if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. Being in that mind where you are comfortable with the result either way, it makes it easier to go out on the course and just let it go and completely freewheel and go after it, because the worst that can happen is that I don't win."

US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau remains the big attraction, but his performance may hinge more on his putting (without the use of a green book) than his driving distance.

He has historically putted poorly at Augusta, which may be why McIlroy sounded less than concerned.

"(His) strokes gained around the green and strokes gained putting was better than strokes gained off the tee," he said of DeChambeau's US Open performance. "He did drive it really well, but at the same time, you need to back that up with all other aspects of your game.

"If trophies were handed out just for how far you hit it and how much ball speed you have, then I'd be worried. But there's still a lot of different aspects that you need to master in this game."

It's a point that's not lost on the 'Mad Scientist', who knows his length will count for nothing if he doesn't pitch and putt well.

"If I don't putt it well at the (US) Open, if I don't wedge it well, if I don't hit my irons close, I don't win that tournament," he said. "So it always comes down to making the putts at the end of the day."

World No 2 Rahm, who had two holes-in-one in practice, is bursting with confidence.

"I can't lie, I'm feeling pretty confident," said the Basque, who is drawn with DeChambeau and Louis Oosthuizen. "Even my last start . . . I hit it about as good as I can hit it tee to green. Hopefully, something special happens this weekend."

Few players have the pedigree or form of the world No 1 Johnson, who has finished second, first, second, first, sixth and second in his last six starts and reckons he's playing as well now as he was in 2017 when he arrived in Augusta on the back of three wins in as many starts before he hurt his back in a fall on stairs and was forced to withdraw.

As for the other Irish in action, Shane Lowry knows he can contend if he drives the ball well alongside defending champion Woods, while Graeme McDowell's often tentative iron play at Augusta must improve for him to have a chance.

Mallow man James Sugrue is gunning to become only the second Irish amateur to make the cut since Joe Carr did it in 1967 and 1968.

But as he said in the build-up, "enjoying the whole experience" is just as important.