Justin Thomas looks ready but Shane Lowry can win wide open Masters

Rory McIlroy believes he will make enough birdies but needs to keep big numbers off his card

Shane Lowry is a contender if his putting can match the excellence of the rest of his game. Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty

Brian Keogh

Tiger Woods has dominated coverage of the Masters for more than a week now, but it’s his close friend and protégé Justin Thomas who looks like the biggest threat to Irish success at Augusta National this week.

The jury is out on whether Rory McIlroy’s work with mental coach Dr Bob Rotella will be enough to overcome being “crippled” by his fear of losing and his frequent distance control problems in what Pádraig Harrington calls “the ultimate” test.

McIlroy might be an unknown quantity right now after his missed cut in San Antonio last week, but he’s no stranger to winning after a bad week, claiming the RBC Canadian Open in 2019 and last year’s Wells Fargo Championship after missing the cut in the Masters.

“I think sometimes the fear of losing can cripple you and make you tentative and not play the golf you want to play,” McIlroy told RTÉ this week. “So actually confronting that fear and thinking I’m going to play my game and if I play that game, I’ll have a great chance to win, and then if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”

With six top-ten finishes in the last ten Masters, McIlroy plays the course better than most, but knows he must remain disciplined.

“I have so much belief in my ability that it baits me into hitting shots that I don’t need to hit,” he said. “I’ll always make enough birdies; that’s not the problem, it’s just keeping the mistakes and the big numbers off the card, and that’s sort of my focus this week, just being a little more conservative and being a little more patient.”

Irish success may depend on Harrington rolling back the years, Shane Lowry’s putter matching the excellence of the rest of his game or debutant Séamus Power feeding off his confidence.

Justin Thomas: Ball-striking phenomenon

But Thomas has spent umpteen hours learning from close friend Woods and Jon Rahm believes the 2017 PGA Championship winner has an edge.

“I think there’s only one man in this field that hears advice from Tiger because I’ve asked before, and I get nothing,” Rahm said.

Thomas has just five top-fives in 24 Major starts, but he’s a ball-striking phenomenon, and with five of the last seven winners featuring in the top five for strokes gained on approach, this may be his year.

He was fourth behind Dustin Johnson in 2020 and with six cuts made in as many appearances, he’s looking to push on at a time when there are question marks over many of the world’s top players.

Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee includes Thomas and Lowry amongst his likely contenders.

“When I’m doing prep for Major championships, I’ll do the top 50 players in the world in great detail,” Chamblee said. “Then I write an X or a question mark or a check by their names, depending upon a million different things that I’ve looked at.

“And all I can tell you is I had a check by Shane Lowry’s name. Absolutely think he can win this week.”

Thomas, world No 1 Scottie Scheffler, Open champion Collin Morikawa, Players Championship winner Cameron Smith and defending champion Hideki Matsuyama are the men Chamblee expects to feature.

“But outside of that, I’d say Daniel Berger, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Will Zalatoris, Shane Lowry. There’s just not that many where you don’t have some question marks.”

Harrington and Lowry played six holes with Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton before play was suspended due to incoming storms yesterday and while the Dubliner’s right wrist is strapped and “a bit stiff”, he’s fancied to do well this week.

With high wind speeds forecast for Thursday afternoon, he’s relishing the prospect of taking advantage of an early draw.

“I hope it’s flat calm in the morning and then starts to blow,” he grinned, then pointed to the number 69 on the player’s badge pinned to his cap. “That’s the only number I’m thinking of.”

Power will play with former Masters champion Patrick Reed and he got some more experience alongside 2020 champion Dustin Johnson yesterday.

“After all the rain yesterday, I wanted to see it this morning,” Power said. “It’s amazing how dry it was. Incredible. Slowed it down a little bit, but by tomorrow (at 12.24) it will probably have sped back up a bit.

“Playing with Dustin, you get a bit of preparation for the crowds at least. He was very helpful, like saying what it might play in the tournament compared to what it was today.”

Confident the course suits his game, he’s had no sleepless nights either.

“You have restless nights when you’ve things that may not be working, but I feel pretty comfortable on the course,” Power said.

“I hit it long enough, my recovery game is good, and I’ve always enjoyed putting on fast greens. These are faster and slopier. There’s a lot of management, especially when you get out of position.

“Obviously, I’ve never played it in tournament conditions, so all that (preparation) could go out the window. But right now, I feel pretty good about it.”

Four to watch . . .

SHANE LOWRY (25/1): The Offaly man is in form and trending up at Augusta National where he has two top 25s in his last two starts.

WILL ZALATORIS (28/1): Second to Hideki Matsuyama last year, he has the game to match Jordan Spieth and win in his second appearance.

SAM BURNS (33/1): With three wins, the world No 11 can become the first debutant since Fuzzy Zoeller to don the green jacket.

JOAQUIN NIEMANN (40/1): Winner of this year’s Genesis Invitational at Riviera where Masters champions thrive.

The Masters, Live, Sky Sports, 2.0

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