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Big stories at Augusta

Former champion Adam Scott summed it up perfectly when he said there were big stories in golf this week ahead of the 79th Masters, which gets under way on Thursday.

First and foremost is the question of whether Rory McIlroy can become only the sixth player in history to complete the career grand slam by winning his first green jacket and third major in a row.

Then there is the uncertainty about which Tiger Woods has arrived at Augusta National, the 14-time major winner or the injury-plagued 39-year-old whose last completed round was an 82, the worst of his professional career.

Scott himself is looking to claim a second Masters title in three years after reverting back to the long putter he used so successfully in 2013, even though the ban on anchored strokes comes into force in eight months' time.

And Bubba Watson can become only the fourth player after Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Woods to successfully defend the title if he can claim a third win in just four years.

McIlroy is the favourite despite recording just one top 10 in six previous appearances, his tie for eighth last year coming after the embarrassment of being outscored by his marker, Augusta member Jeff Knox, in the third round.

The world number one could have made the Masters his first major title after taking a four-shot lead into the final round in 2011, only to collapse to a closing 80 that featured a triple-bogey seven on the 10th - where his hooked drive found a part of the course never seen before - and a four-putt on the famous par-three 12th.

Remarkably he bounced back two months later to win the US Open by eight shots and believes his "unravelling" at Augusta was the most important day of his career.

By winning the 2012 US PGA and the Open at Hoylake last year the 25-year-old completed three legs of the career grand slam, with a second PGA title at Valhalla the icing on the cake as it proved he could win after a back-nine battle in the final round.

Past and present Ryder Cup captains Paul McGinley and Darren Clarke, Phil Mickelson and Woods all believe it is inevitable that McIlroy will win the Masters at some point in his career, but whether it happens this year will depend on his ability to avoid damaging high scores.

In his last five appearances McIlroy has had one round of 77 or higher, while he surprisingly played the par fives in level par last year and finished eight shots behind Watson, who played them in eight under.

"It hasn't even been that it's been a bad 18 holes, it's just been a bad nine holes where it sort of got away from me," McIlroy said. "I think I'm more experienced now. I had a run last year where I would throw in a bad nine holes, usually on a Friday, which happened here. I think I'm better equipped now to handle it if things don't go the right way.

"Mentally I feel like I'm in a far better place on the golf course and being able to handle adversity whenever it may come my way out there. You've just got to realise that there are holes out here that par is a good score and you move on.

"You've got the obvious opportunities out here to make birdies and the obvious hole where you try to take your par and avoid the big number. That's what I'll be trying to do this week."

Whether McIlroy wins or not, statistics suggest the cream will again rise to the top on Sunday evening.

Since Clarke and Keegan Bradley won the last two majors of 2011 when ranked 111th and 108th in the world respectively, the lowest ranked winner of a major has been Ernie Els, who was 40th when he won the 2012 Open at Lytham.

In 2013, Scott was ranked seventh when he won the Masters, Justin Rose fifth before his US Open triumph at Merion and Phil Mickelson also fifth before his Open victory at Muirfield. Jason Dufner was 21st when he won the US PGA at Oak Hill.

Last year Watson was 12th before his Masters triumph, Martin Kaymer 28th ahead of his runaway US Open victory and McIlroy eighth and first before winning the Open and US PGA respectively.

The statistics do not favour a European winner however, with Jose Maria Olazabal the last to don the famous green jacket in 1999 after a period of dominance which saw e ight wins between 1988 and 1999 and seven out of nine from Sandy Lyle's triumph in 1988 to Faldo's third title in 1996.


From Belfast Telegraph