McIlroy feeling heat to live up to Tiger’s feat
If Rory McIlroy wants to become the youngest Masters champion in history — a position currently held by Tiger Woods, of course — he has to do it this week.
The world number 11 turns 21 in four weeks and come next April will be eight months older than Woods was when he left the rest for dead in 1997.
The odds on McIlroy donning a green jacket on Sunday have been getting longer and longer with some poor recent results, but he believes he is putting his game back together — and there is no more inspirational stage than Augusta National.
“I've made a lot of progress in the last week,” said McIlroy, whose thoughts were turning to the Masters long before he missed the halfway cut in the Houston Open last Friday.
“I feel I'm now playing well enough to be on contention. I feel like the shots are there again. I'm hitting a lot of fairways and my distance is up again.
“I'm certainly moving in the right direction. My confidence wasn't great a month ago, but it's probably back close to seven or eight.
“And I love this golf course.”
McIlroy has played only one Masters, but six birdies in his last 10 holes on the final day last year brought him up to 20th spot and had him eagerly anticipating his return.
There was also the drama of the second day, when he four-putted the 16th, triple-bogeyed the last and then was investigated for a possible rules breach in a bunker.
But he brings good memories rather than scars back now.
“For any golfer who plays at a decent level this is a course they want to play,” he said.
“I feel as if I know it pretty well and feel very comfortable with the shots you have to have round here.
“You've got to drive it well. Once you hit it in the fairway you put yourself in position to attack the pins.
“But the greens are so tricky and it's just a matter of trying to get your speed right. That's probably the secret to putting well here.”
One difference from last year is how firm and fast the ground is.
“That suits the better strikers of the ball and I think I am one of the better ones,” McIlroy added. “Saying that, the last few weeks I haven't been.”
To the surprise of many, last February's Dubai Desert Classic remains McIlroy's only professional title so far.
He has had 11 top six finishes since then, but in his last three tournaments he has finished 40th, 65th and 81st.
“I can't wait to get going now. I've been looking forward to it for a long time and I will try to draw on the way I finished last year,” he said.
He does not begin his challenge until 12.36pm, just over an hour before Woods makes his return from nearly five months out.
McIlroy might be trying to become the youngest-ever champion, but playing partner Kenny Perry serves as a reminder that in simple terms of just trying to win the thing he has a lot of time on his side.
Perry was closer to becoming the oldest major winner ever last April, but the 49-year-old bogeyed the last two holes and then lost a play-off to Angel Cabrera.
Meanwhile, Michael Hoey hopes his Portuguese pedigree will stand him in good stead at the Madeira Islands Open this week.
The 31-year-old Belfast man finished sixth at this event last year before winning the Estoril Open two weeks later, and is now eyeing the prospect of a second European Tour title at Porto Santo this week.
“This is a huge week because it's a great chance for a younger player or a player further down the rankings to win,” he said.
“I said earlier in the season I was happy with how my year was going and I'm still feeling that way. I've been pretty consistent which was my aim so I'm happy with how it's going. I'm ready to push on from here.”
Hoey understands that the vast majority of golf fans' attention will be elsewhere, with Tiger Woods returning to the sport in The Masters, and has even made sure he will be able to follow the action in Augusta himself.
“Fortunately the hotel has got BBC so I'll be watching the Masters every night, as will a lot of others I'm sure,” he said.
The highest-ranked player in the Race to Dubai featuring in Madeira is Richie Ramsay at 29th.