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Graeme McDowell is battling to be fit for the Masters

By Phil Casey

Graeme McDowell admitted that playing in the Masters at Augusta was his priority when withdrawing from the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio with an ankle injury.

McDowell suffered the problem during practice on Wednesday and, although he managed to play his opening nine holes yesterday, he pulled out of the tournament before setting his sights on getting fit for the Masters, which starts in less than a fortnight.

McDowell's fellow Ulsterman and world number one Rory McIlroy will bid for the career Grand Slam at Augusta.

McDowell, tweeted: "Apologies to everyone at @valerotxopen for my withdrawal. Strained my lower left leg/ankle area practicing y/day and played with heavy strapping on it in the pro am and this morning.

"With The Masters upcoming I decided that getting fit is imperative. Don't like WDs.

"The week here at @valerotxopen had everything I wanted. Great people and great course. Disappointed this has happened. Thanks to everyone."

McDowell, who won the US Open in 2010, was five over in Texas when he withdrew, having started on the back nine.

The Masters begins at Augusta National on April 9.

Michael Hoey finished the opening day of the Hassan Trophy at Golf du Palais Royal in Morocco five shots off the lead after a two-under par 70.

The Belfast golfer, who won this tournament three years ago, carded four birdies and two bogeys, while fellow Ulsterman Gareth Maybin is four shots further back after a first round 74.

George Coetzee and Marcel Siem kept their hopes of qualifying for the Masters very much alive after excellent starts.

Both men had the daunting task of knowing only a victory in Morocco would be enough to book a trip to Augusta for the first Major of the year.

South Africa's Coetzee carded a 67 and Siem a 68 to finish two and three shots respectively behind France's Adrien Saddier.

Saddier, who was one shot off the lead before the final round of the Madeira Islands Open was cancelled due to bad weather on Sunday, made the most of his sponsor's invite to card a flawless 65.

The 22-year-old chipped in on the first for an eagle and repeated the trick on the sixth for the first of his five birdies to finish one shot ahead of England's Daniel Gaunt, who carded seven birdies and a solitary bogey on the 18th.

Coetzee shared third place with Scotland's David Drysdale and England's Chris Wood, with Siem a shot further back after five birdies, an eagle and three bogeys in his round.

Starting from the 10th, Coetzee - who won the Tshwane Open on his home course in Pretoria a fortnight ago - birdied his first two holes and also picked up shots on the 16th and 17th to reach the turn in 32.

Further birdies on the first and seventh took Coetzee to six under, but the 28-year-old ran up a double bogey on the next after his tee shot rolled back off the green and his first chip caught the same slope and came back to his feet.

However, the world number 69 made amends with a birdie from 20 feet on the ninth, just minutes after Siem had holed from an almost identical position.

"Augusta is on my mind, obviously," Coetzee said. "I'm here to try to qualify, but I'm just trying to play golf and hopefully on Sunday I will be in contention.

"There is still a lot of work to be done. If it all doesn't work out then I've got a nice five-week holiday. I'm just playing and enjoying my golf. I'm in a good space mentally."

Siem led from start to finish here in 2013 and looked to have done enough to climb into the world's top 50 and secure his Masters debut.

However, after the results of the Houston Open were taken into consideration a few hours later, the 34-year-old discovered he was ranked 51st and had missed out by just 0.03 world ranking points.

Of the others hoping to qualify for Augusta, Tommy Fleetwood was best placed after an opening 70. Alexander Levy (72), Andy Sullivan (74) and Ross Fisher (77) were the others in with a chance of moving into the top 50 before Monday's deadline.

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