By Tom LaMarre
Even before he captured The Players Championship last month, Rory McIlroy knew the spotlight would be on him this week at the 83rd Masters, as it has been in the first men’s major of the season for the last four years.
McIlroy will make his fifth attempt to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only golfers to capture the Career Grand Slam, and has been designated as the tournament favorite.
In those four tries, Rory has played well enough despite not winning, finishing fourth in 2014, followed by a tie for 10th, a tie for seventh and a tie for fifth last year, giving him five top-10 results in 10 appearances at Augusta National Golf Club www.augusta.com.
“It’s only over the last couple of years that I’ve been completely comfortable on the property,” said McIlroy, who seemed to be on his way to claiming The Green Jacket in 2011 at the age of 21, when took a four-stroke lead to the final round but succumbed to the pressure and shot 80 to tie for 15th. “I think that’s the reason I’ve played consistently better there over the last few years.
“ … I think sometimes I’m too much a fan of the game because I know exactly who has won the Grand Slam and I know exactly the players I would be putting myself alongside. Maybe, if I didn’t know the history of the game and I wasn’t such a fan, it would work in my favor. But that’s not me.
“It would be a massive achievement. It would be huge, but I can’t think about it that way.”
McIlroy, who has 24 pro victories, went nearly a year without winning before beating Jim Furyk by one stroke in The Players but certainly has been in form this year with top-10 finishes in all seven of his starts on the PGA Tour heading toward Magnolia Lane.
In fact, he might be playing his best golf since he captured the last two majors of 2014, The Open Championship at Royal Liverpool in England by two strokes over Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia, and the PGA Championship by one shot over Phil Mickelson at Valhalla in Louisville, to give him four major titles in a span of four years.
“Rory is an unbelievable talent,” Nicklaus, who won a record six Masters, said after seeing McIlroy win the PGA on a course The Golden Bear designed. “I think Rory has an opportunity to win 15 or 20 majors, or whatever he wants to do if he wants to keep playing. I love his swing.”
Despite eight top-10 finishes in the Grand Slam events since, McIlroy has been unable to lift another major trophy.
Although he’s on top of his game and figures to be in contention this week at Augusta, it won’t be easy.
The field obviously is loaded with the likes of four-time Masters champion Woods, three-time winner Mickelson, Fowler and 2017 champion Garcia, plus Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Francesco Molinari, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, defending champion Patrick Reed, 2015 champ Jordan Spieth, two-time winner Bubba Watson, 2016 champion Danny Willett and Brooks Koepka, who was captured three major titles in the last two years.
However, none of them has the opportunity McIlroy has given himself.
- Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland – Even though McIlroy is the favorite, the pressure to complete the Career Grand Slam this week might be his biggest obstacle, but everything seems to be in his favor. He is coming off a victory in The Players, one of his seven top-10s this year, and he has recorded four straight top-10s at Augusta National.
- Dustin Johnson, United States – Despite being arguably the most talented player in the game, DJ has won only one major title, the 2016 U.S. Open, among 15 top-10s in the Grand Slam events – including three straight in the Masters. Johnson is in good form, having won the Saudi International and the WGC-Mexico Championship this year.
- Francesco Molinari, Italy – Having broken through to claim his first major title in the Open Championship last July at Carnoustie, Molinari is looking for more. However, his best result in the Masters was a tie for 19th in 2012 and he also tied for 20th last year. He won the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month and tied for third in WGC-Match Play.
- Justin Rose, England – Another player who surprisingly has only one major the title, the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, it figures Rose’s next might come in the Masters. He finished second at Augusta in 2015 and 2007, in addition to three other top-10s. Rose won the Turkish Airlines Open in November and Farmers Insurance Open in February.
- Jon Rahm, Spain – The 24-year-old Spaniard showed last year that there figure to be a few major titles in his future when he finished fourth in his second Masters and tied for fourth in PGA Championship at Bellerive. Rahm claimed his sixth pro victory in Hero World Challenge in January and has six top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour this year.
- Justin Thomas, United States – The 25-year-old Thomas has one major title, the 2017 PGA at Quail Hollow, but is another young player who seems destined to win more. He tied for sixth in his PGA title defense and posted his best result in three Masters appearances, a tie for 17th last year. JT has not won this year, but has five top-10s.
- Tiger Woods, United States – The four-time Masters champion played at Augusta in 2018 for the first time in three years because of four back surgeries and tied for 32nd, but is in much better form now. Tiger, who has 14 major titles, won the Tour Championship in October and finished in the top 10 in two World Golf Championships this year.
- Brooks Koepka, United States – The man who has played the majors better than anyone else in the last two years would love to add a Masters title to his two U.S. Opens and 2018 PGA crown he won at Bellerive last August. Koepka’s tie for 11th last year was his best result in three tries at Augusta National and he won the CJ Cup early this season.
- Paul Casey, England – Although he has never won a major title among his 19 pro victories, Casey is playing some of the best golf of his career at age 41 with a victory in the Valspar, a second at Pebble and third in the WGC-Mexico this year. He has five top-10s in the Masters, including three in a row through 2017, his best record in the majors.
- Jordan Spieth, United States – Despite finishing no better than a tie for 30th in 10 events this year, Spieth can’t be overlooked because of his record in the Masters. He claimed the title in 2015 for the first of his three major victories, and also tied for second at Augusta National and in 2014 and 2016, in addition to finishing solo third last year.
OTHERS TO WATCH—Rickie Fowler, United States; Tommy Fleetwood, England; Jason Day, Australia; Phil Mickelson, United States; Bryson DeChambeau, United States.
- Matt Wallace, England – A four-time winner on the Euro Tour, is playing in first Masters with a T6 in the API and T20 in the Honda. Tied for 19th the PGA last year.
- Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Thailand – The Thai star has 11 pro victories, and finished third in WGC-Mexico and T4 in WGC-HSBC this season. Tied for 15th in 2016 Masters.
- Andrew Putnam, United States – Winner of 2018 Barracuda Championship plays in first Masters after finishing second in Sony, T4 in WGC-HSBC, T14 in TOC this season.
- Justin Harding, South Africa – South African claimed 10th pro victory in Qatar Masters last month and was T17 in the WGC-Dell Match Play en route to first Masters.
- Aaron Wise, United States – The 2016 NCAA champion at Oregon earned first start in Masters by winning 2018 Byron Nelson and was 2018 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year.
For first-round tee times visit https://www.pgatour.com/leaderboard.html