The 79th Masters tees off in Augusta today, and the pressure is on Rory McIlroy to live up to his billing as the world number one. The Northern Irishman is aiming for his fifth Major – and his third in a row after having won the Open and the PGA in 2014 – but also a place among golf's greats by becoming only the sixth player in history to complete a career Grand Slam.
The fact that McIlory is only 25 years old underlines how much he's achieved since winning his first Major in 2011 and how much more is possible. As Sky Sports commentator Paul McGinley said earlier this week, as long as he retains an appetite for the game as he gets older, McIlory will surely close in on Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 Major titles.
Tiger Woods, who won 14 Majors between 1997 and 2008, could yet add to his tally, but because he’s played only 47 holes of competitive golf this year – and not one in the last two months – he's not expected to launch a serious challenge to McIlroy over the next four days.
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Arguably the biggest challenge to McIlroy will come from himself, and whether he can cope with the burden of expectation at such a young age. Since he's already got four Majors in the bag it seems he can handle the pressure, but in an interview with Sky Sports he admitted he's aware of the pitfalls. "I've been trying to get away from all the build-up, just concentrate on myself and create a kind of cocoon around myself," he explained. "I'm at the golf course answering questions and it's all business, but once I leave the course I'm trying to take my mind off it as much as I can."
McIlroy exuded confidence when he spoke to Sky Sports, admitting that "I've never been in a better position to contend at Augusta". He added: "My game is in good shape and I feel ready. I've got the experience of winning major championships, and I'm coming off the back of two wins last year."
McIlroys is sure to face stiff competition from Bubba Watson who has won two of the last three Masters, including 2014 when he finished three shots clear of the field. The big-hitting left-hander needs one more title at Augusta to emulate Nicklaus's feat of winning three Masters titles in four years.
What may work against Watson is his lack of golf – he's been resting since finishing third in the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship on March 8 - and consequently some American golf pundits predict McIlroy's biggest challenge could well come from Jimmy Walker, the world number ten who has been in superb form of late.
But whoever emerges as a threat to McIlroy, the Ulsterman knows that, if his own game stands up to the test, he can finally win his first Masters. “There are a lot of guys in this field I've beaten before, and I can't see why I can't do that around here," he explained. "It's a matter of putting myself in that position, that's all I'm trying to do.
“If I can execute my game plan, that should give me the opportunity in a few days' time to slip on a Green Jacket."
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