John Brennan: Rory McIlroy needs to give his Masters itch a scratch
Irish star must stay hot with the putter to halt Scheffler and Rahm bids
It is as reliable a passage out of the gloom and doom of a dark winter as any other.
The Masters, with the Azaleas blooming in Augusta, takes place in early April, and brightness and warmth are back in our lives.
But for the best golfers in the world this week beneath the Georgia pines it is not about a feel-good vibe.
It is about the serious business of winning the first of the season’s four Majors and there is nobody for whom it will be more serious next Thursday morning than Rory McIlroy.
Ever since he won the Open in 2014, Rory has needed to win the Masters to join the ‘Gang of Five,’ the quintet of golfers who have won all of golf’s most glittering prizes during their career.
Augusta has teased Rory mercilessly over the years.
There was 2011, when the then young man led for 63 holes, but the famed ‘Masters Back Nine on Sunday’ caught him out with a string of errant shots.
Last year, he blitzed the famous course, front nine and back, on the last day.
Yet Rory was always too far adrift on the scoreboard to catch Scottie Scheffler, who became yet another top-notch, younger than Rory, golfer to win his first Major since Rory won his last.
The pride of Holywood in County Down turns 34 next month.
It’s not exactly old as a golfer, but that 40th birthday is out there somewhere on the horizon, the birthday after which even the greatest of golfers rarely win the big events.
The pressure is on, but Rory seems ready to put it all on his shoulders and finally also put the Green Jacket of Masters champion on those shoulders too.
This time around, Rory has to start well and then keep his pedal to the metal.
It will demand concentration and skill, but he has all that in abundance.
Rory just needs to put it all together for four days.
We do not need him to give us the flashes of genius here and there.
With a glorious 65 on one day, surrounded by three par rounds of 72 – or even two par rounds and a dreadful 74 thrown in as he did last year.
No, if Rory is to win, he needs to shoot four 68’s, or if the weather is bad, grind out one 71 on that rainy afternoon in Georgia to stay in contention.
He, Scheffler and Jon Rahm have been the three outstanding golfers of the young season so far.
Would you bet against the 2023 Masters coming down to a back nine fireworks display next Sunday between any two of them, or even all three going toe to toe?
I wouldn’t, for they have been the dominant characters of the season.
But there are others who will fancy their chances.
I give you four of them, more outsiders than favourites, as worthy of a wager across the page.
But at shorter prices you can think of Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Matt Fitzpatrick, Patrick Cantlay, and Collin Morikawa.
And of course there is extra spice at this year’s Masters, with the LIV Tour players welcomed back into the fold by the members of Augusta National.
So we’ll see the likes of Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, and Open champion Cameron Smith playing this week.
And, of course, Tiger Woods is teeing it up too this week, still believing and dreaming that Major No 16 is out there for him.
On this course, that he knows like the back of his hand, anything is possible with the Tiger.
You just have to fear that he will not be able to keep it all going for 72 holes on one of the most difficult courses to walk on all of the US Tour.
The Masters is always special, this year it could be extra special with history there to be made as Rory comes into the contest full of confidence.
This might just be his best chance ever. If he can get his putting going, then the rest of the Irishman’s game, the driving, the length, the accuracy with fairway irons, and a much-improved short-game, is all there.
That putter is the key to it all. Rory needs it to stay hot for all four days and make enough of those vital eight-footers to sustain his challenge.
Whether they are for birdies or to save a vital par hardly matters, those putts have to hit the back of the hole.
Yes, it is time for Rory to put that nine-year itch to bed. And become the Master Golfer that we’ve always known he can be.
Paddy Power are paying 1/5 the odds for six places on the Masters
SO WHO’S WORTH A PUNT?
Will Zalatoris (28/1) The young American loves pressure and he loves tough courses and has contended at Augusta in the past. Now coming back to his best after missing the end of 2022 through a wrist injury. Zalatoris is well worth a punt. It’s only a case of ‘when’ Will becomes a Major winner, not ‘if’.
Shane Lowry (40/1) It has been a hot and cold season for the pride of Clara so far. But that won’t worry Shane if he gets himself into Sunday contention. He rises to the biggest challenges and remember, the winner at Augusta is the man who plays the short game best that week. It could easily be our man to triumph.
Hideki Matsuyama (40/1) The Japanese star has yet to hit the heights this year. But that’s as it was two years ago, when he came good on the four days that mattered to end Japan’s long wait for a male Major winner. He could sneak in again for the win.
Keith Mitchell (100/1) The 31-year-old American has finished fourth and fifth in tournaments this season. He also leads the PGA Tour stats this year in total driving which is a good mark to carry into the battle to keep it straight and long between the pine trees. At triple-figure odds, you might get a run for your money from the Tennessee native.
DID YOU KNOW?
KEY HOLES TO WATCH…
The 1st, Tea Olive 445 yards: Par 4 It’s not long and it even plays downhill – yet watch how many players will begin their rounds with bogeys at this hole next week? It’s a teaser from the off. The 12th, Golden Bell 155 yards: Par 3 This famous, and treacherous, hole is often played off a much shorter yardage than its full length. But there is water in front of the green, bunkers and bushes behind it. Ye Gods, Tiger took a 10 at this hole one time. The 13th: Azalea 545 yards: Par 5 This is the hole everyone will be watching this year as Augusta’s owners have added 35 yards to what used to be the course’s easiest hole. Now, if you try to fly the dogleg on the hole from the tee, which almost everyone did for the last few years, you risk hitting the trees. So do you play to the corner of the dogleg and give yourself a much harder second shot over Rae’s Creek? It will be fascinating to watch what the top professionals do.
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