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McIlroy keeping cool head as he gears up for latest Masters bid

 

Clear vision: Rory McIlroy
Clear vision: Rory McIlroy

By Phil Casey

Being the youngest of the four Majors does not prevent the Masters from making a big deal out of its traditions, so much so that the phrase 'A tradition unlike any other' has been trademarked by Augusta National.

Often used by CBS announcer Jim Nantz, it is a phrase usually taken to refer to traditions such as the honorary starters, the par-three contest and the green jacket awarded to the winner.

But perhaps it can now also refer to the annual question of whether Rory McIlroy can join golf's most elite club by completing the career Grand Slam.

McIlroy needs to win the Masters to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in having claimed all four Major titles.

The 29-year-old has finished inside the top 10 on each of his last four starts at Augusta National and was in the last group in the final round 12 months ago, only to struggle to a closing 74 and end up six shots behind playing partner Patrick Reed.

The Ulsterman started the round three shots behind Reed, who bogeyed the first and failed to birdie the par-five second. McIlroy had an eagle putt from four feet on the same hole to tie for the lead but missed and bogeyed two of the next three holes.

That means his best chance to win also remains his worst memory of Augusta, namely when he squandered a four-shot lead in 2011 with a final-round collapse.

However, there is also no question that McIlroy travels in some of the best form of his career after following five consecutive top-six finishes with victory in the Players Championship.

The one downside is that only Woods (2001) has won the Masters and Players in the same year, but McIlroy insists he has already come to terms with the size of his task.

"I've become a lot more comfortable with the fact that I'm going to fail more times than I succeed at that certain conquest," he said. "I've tried four times and I've failed, but Abraham Lincoln lost the first 13 elections he was in and ended up being the President of the United States so I've still got a bit of time."

Time is not on the side of the 43-year-old Woods, who knows all too well that Nicklaus is the only player to have won the Masters at an older age.

Spinal fusion surgery in April 2017 was Woods' fourth back operation in the space of three years and surely a last roll of the dice, but it was a gamble which appears to have paid off.

Woods could only finish 32nd last year but finished the season by winning the Tour Championship in Atlanta and made an encouraging start to the season before missing the Arnold Palmer Invitational with a neck problem.

After beating McIlroy in the last 16 of the WGC-Match Play, Woods lost to Lucas Bjerregaard in the quarters but with the hype which surrounded his Masters return last year turned down, that should work in his favour.

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