Woods, McIlroy face talented Masters contenders

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy command most of the attention leading into Thursday’s start of the 76th Masters, but there will be 95 other golfers trying to win the champion’s green jacket too.

World No 7 Woods, the highest-ranked Masters winner, snapped a two and a half-year win drought by taking the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks ago, showing the form that brought him 14 career Major titles, four off Jack Nicklaus’s record.

“Fine tuning here and there, making the adjustments, that’s a good sign for Augusta,” Woods said. “I understand how to play Augusta National and it’s just a matter of executing the game plan.”

Second-ranked McIlroy, a Northern Ireland prodigy who won last month’s Honda Classic to seize the top ranking for two weeks, won his first Major crown at last year’s US Open after a back-nine Sunday collapse cost him the Masters.

“I’ve always been a pretty confident guy, but I’ve got a lot more belief in myself now when I’m going down the stretch,” McIlroy said. “I definitely don’t doubt myself as much as I used to.”

Either Woods (36) or McIlroy (22) is featured on covers of the latest golf magazines, both of them drawn in boxing gloves for one publication. They are not the whole show at Augusta National this week, but they are the headliners.

“If we want to win this tournament, we have to beat Rory and Tiger,” said 2006 US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy of Australia, who shared fourth last year. “I don’t think they are the whole show but you have to beat them to win.”

Aussie Jason Day, who shared second last year with countryman Adam Scott, sees the excitement of a possible Woods-McIlroy showdown as a benefit to golf, but he wouldn’t be surprised to see someone else win the title on Sunday.

“It’s going to be pretty exciting with Tiger just winning recently and how Rory has been playing this year,” Day said. “There are a bunch of guys this year that have really stepped up and played great. Hopefully we can have another exciting finish like we did last year.

“Any player like Rory or Phil [Mickelson] or Tiger that goes ahead and wins this week, it would be great for the game of golf … But I’m going to do my best to try to stop them.”

South African legend Gary Player, a three-time Masters champion who has made a record 52 starts at Augusta National, likes Rory McIlroy to win the Masters.

“I have to favour Rory McIlory this year,” Player wrote in a Laureus website blog. “Last year he was playing so well and was leading and had that collapse in the final round with an 80 … I think Rory has a little revenge in his heart for the golf course. The way he recovered from that upset at the US Open a couple of months later showed what maturity he has.”

Player expects a strong performance from Woods in the wake of his first triumph since the sex scandal that destroyed his iconic image and his marriage.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen him drive the ball well in a long time,” said Player. “He’s going to be very, very tough at Augusta. He knows the course, he’s confident and he’s had a tough time for two years and he’s very hungry.”

‘Only a matter of time’
McIlroy is growing into the same sort of force as Woods, although he has not yet reached the American’s lofty heights, Day says.

“It’s only a matter of time,” Day said. “I believe that if he keeps heading in the right direction, it will get like that, definitely, because he hits it very, very solid and he can make the crowd scream.”

Scott sees strength in how McIlroy bounced back from Masters heartbreak last year to capture the US Open in impressive fashion in his next major start.

“He’s great. He bounced back and won the US Open and he has become a better player since then. I mean, Rory is a phenomenon, really,” Scott said. “He handled that better than anyone else could have probably. Fantastic.”

Woods has his supporters as well, notably pal Mark O’Meara, his practice partner over the past two days.

“It has been a tough two and a half years but it’s in there. He just needed to dig deep and find it,” O’Meara said. “I expect him to play well. There’s no reason he shouldn’t. He has got a little bit of pep to his step again.”

Others in the hunt for their first Major title include World No. 1 Luke Donald, third-ranked English compatriot Lee Westwood, top-ranked US players Hunter Mahan and Steve Stricker and World No. 9 Justin Rose of England.

The field of 97, fifth-largest in Masters history, includes 50 golfers from beyond US borders representing 18 nations. There are six amateurs and 15 first-time Masters players. — AFP

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Jim Slater
Jim Slater
Sports Editor Agence France-Presse (AFP).

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