With perennial Masters favorite Tiger Woods sidelined, the mantle has fallen to Rory McIlroy.
And the 24-year-old Irishman isn’t shying away from it.
“Golf in general is very wide open at the moment,” said McIlroy, who was No. 1 in the world after a brilliant 2012 season and is No. 7 right now. “It’s almost like golf is waiting for someone to stamp their authority on the game and be that dominant player.
“I think a few guys need to put their hand up and try and be the dominant players in this game because that’s what people like to see. It’s great for the sport to have people who are up there week-in, week-out who win tournaments, and then that creates rivalries, and that’s something we haven’t really had in golf for a couple of years.
“It would be nice to see someone sort of break away … I hope it’s me.”
However, McIlroy and several of the other top players have issues right now.
McIlroy recovered from the funk he was in when his new Nike clubs and flaws in his swing made last year a season to forget, and he salvaged what he could of 2013 by beating Adam Scott on the final hole to win the Australian Open on December.
McIlroy was the ultimate closer two years ago, when he won five times around the globe, including an eight-stroke victory in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, the same margin by which he claimed the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional.
This year, he could have won three times, but was unable to close the deal on Sunday in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and the Honda Classic, where he lost a two-shot overnight lead while closing with a 74 and lost to Russell Henley in a playoff.
And who can forget his final-round meltdown in the 2011 Masters, when he took a four-stroke lead after 54 holes, but imploded with an 8-over-par 80 tie for 15th.
You never saw that happen to Woods in his prime, but Rory tried to put a positive spin on it.
“I’ve had a couple chances to win already, and I haven’t done that,” said McIlroy, whose last PGA Tour victory came in the 2012 BMW Championship. “So it’s a good problem to have being in contention and not getting the job done, because at least you’re putting yourself in a position to win.
“I needed to trust myself more (in his final-round collapse at the Honda), a little bit more belief in what I was doing, because down the stretch I started to hit some ropy shots, shots I hadn’t really hit basically for all that week. So just more mental, more belief, more trust.”
Adam Scott, who last year became the first Australian to win the Green Jacket, has similar demons to overcome after blowing a seven-stroke lead halfway through the Arnold Palmer Invitational when a victory would have sent him to Augusta National atop the World Golf Rankings.
Scott also squandered a four-stroke lead to McIlroy in the final round of the Australian Open four months ago, finishing one stroke back after a bogey on the final hole, where McIlroy made birdie.
Of course, his biggest collapse came in the final round of the 2012 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, where he held a four-stroke lead with four holes to play but finished with four bogeys that allowed Ernie Els to steal away with the Claret Jug.
“I really think the putting has let me down on both of those occasions,” Scott said of his two most recent collapses. “I actually played quite nicely in Australia when I had the lead. But (Bay Hill) was a bit shaky.
” … It probably shows that I need to do a bit more work on it to hold up under the pressure.
McIlroy and Scott have shown that they can play, and win, when the heat is on, but it will be interesting to see if they can put these recent stumbles out of their heads if they are in contention on the back nine Sunday at Augusta.
Some other the other top contenders have different problems.
Phil Mickelson strained an oblique muscle two weeks ago in the Valero Texas Open and does not have a top-10 finish in nine tournaments in the 2013-14 season.
Jason Day of Australia, who tied for second in the Masters in 2012 and finished third last year, hasn’t played because of a right thumb injury since winning the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February.
Henrik Stenson of Sweden, who played through a right wrist injury while winning the FedEx Cup Race and the Race to Dubai late last year, has finished in the top-10 only once this season.
Justin Rose of England, the reigning U.S. Open champion, played late last year despite tendinitis in his right shoulder that delayed his start this year, and he also has not regained his best form.
Jason Dufner, the reigning PGA champion, was down with pneumonia and bronchitis earlier this year and still has not gotten completely back on track.
Bubba Watson was playing his best golf since winning the Masters two years ago before he shot 11-over-par 83 in the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational and withdrew because of severe allergies.
Dustin Johnson also was playing well, with five top-10 finishes in as many stroke-play events on the PGA Tour before carding an 8-over-par 80 in the first round of the Shell Houston Open last week and withdrawing because of what was termed back stiffness.
It sounds like a Masters of disaster, but Augusta National always identifies a star.
–Story courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre