The Masters 2019: Rory McIlroy bidding for career grand slam and other talking points

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Patrick Reed will be bidding to defend his Masters title on Thursday as the first major championship of the year gets underway at Augusta National in Georgia.

Here, we look at five talking points ahead of the tournament.

Can McIlroy complete a career grand slam?

Since lifting the PGA Championship nearly five years ago at Valhalla, much pressure has fallen on Rory McIlroy’s shoulders to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods in winning all four major titles.

In his four attempts to date, the Northern Irishman has finished fourth, 10th, seventh and fifth respectively.

If one round is to linger in his mind it will be his disappointing two-over-par 74 last year, when playing in the final group on Sunday with eventual winner Patrick Reed.

A blazing start to the season though has seen McIlroy win at Sawgrass, finish second in Mexico and secure three top-five finishes from seven starts.

The 29-year-old currently leads the PGA Tour in strokes gained off the tee, strokes gained tee to green and strokes gained overall.

This is his best chance to win the Masters in five years, and based on current form, is the strongest player in the field.

What shape is the defending champion in?

It’s hard to know which Reed will grace the stunning greens at Augusta this weekend.

Twelve months ago, the Georgia man came into the first major of the year high on confidence after posting three successive top-10 finishes.

However, this time around, he has not finished inside the top-10 since the WGC-HSBC Champions last October.

Only Nicklaus, Woods and Nick Faldo have won back-to-back Masters titles and the chances of Reed doing the same appear slim.

The 28-year-old is struggling with his putting and needs to use this weekend to restore confidence and belief before thinking of competing for trophies.

Is a Woods fairytale win possible?

Woods has only played the Masters twice since 2015 and has not won at Augusta National in nearly 14 years.

Winning a fifth green jacket would be a fairytale way to set one of the greatest sporting comeback stories after all the injury troubles he has been through in recent years.

Although it would take a brave man to rule out the possibility of a 15th major triumph, the 43-year-old has seen a run of encouraging results at the Genesis Open and Mexico halted by a neck injury which forced him to pull out of the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month.

The Florida native is coming off a T5 performance at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play two weeks ago, but the significant question remains whether he can stay consistent over four rounds with a neck niggle.

Can Spieth get back to his best?

Since leaving Augusta ranked number three in the world last year, Jordan Spieth has slipped to 32nd in the rankings and looking devoid of confidence over short putts.

In fact, he has not achieved a top-10 finish in nearly nine months – stretching back to the British Open at Carnoustie in mid-July.

And, while there has been little evidence to suggest he could challenge this weekend, his remarkable record at Augusta is better than anyone around (T2-1-T2-T11-3).

Perhaps a solid weekend with improved putting could parachute his confidence and overall game management back to a position where it should be.

A man of his vast talents is too good to be away from the top of the leaderboard.

Rose to rise in Georgia?

Justin Rose must wonder if he will ever get his hands on the green jacket after several near misses in Augusta.

The 38-year-old shot the joint-lowest score to finish runner-up in 2015 and followed that up with a play-off defeat to Sergio Garcia in 2017.

The world number one has been one of the most consistent players on Tour since that loss two years ago, and with victory at the Farmers Insurance Open and two top-10s under his belt this season already, could this be the year the Englishman finally roars into life at majors?

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Huizing clinches inaugural championship at Ayla Golf Club

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The Jordan Mixed Open Presented by Ayla, a pioneering new tournament engineered by the team at Ayla Golf Club, has proved an undisputed success, with competitors from all three co-sanctioning tours concurring that the innovative mixed format could set a blueprint for the future of the game.

In a nail-biting finish to the inaugural event, which witnessed competitors from the Challenge Tour, Staysure Tour and Ladies European Tour (LET) compete alongside one another for the first time, Dutchman Daan Huizing (Challenge Tour) saw off Meghan MacLaren (LET) to claim a two-shot victory and carve his name on the Triquetra Trophy with an impressive 16-under-par total.

Runner-up, MacLaren, who had previously spoken out about the disparity between pay and coverage of the men’s and women’s tours, demonstrated exceptional strength of character as she backed up her words with actions and highlighted the vast talent that presides on the Ladies European Tour with two consecutive rounds of 7-under-par 65, before final round of level par 72.

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Francesco Molinari still hungry for success despite achieving his golfing dreams

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Francesco Molinari admits he has achieved his golfing dreams by winning the Open and performing Ryder Cup heroics, but remains hungry for more success.

Molinari became the first Italian player to win a major when he claimed the Open Championship at Carnoustie last year, which followed victory in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth and a maiden PGA Tour title in the Quicken Loans National.

The 36-year-old then became the first European player to compile a perfect 5-0 record in the Ryder Cup victory at Le Golf National, having already teamed up with Tommy Fleetwood to become the first European pair to win all four of their matches together.

Molinari ended 2018 by winning the European Tour’s Race to Dubai for the first time and has carried on where he left off in 2019, with victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and third place in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.

“To be honest, I’ve achieved my dream, that was winning the Open last year,” Molinari said in a teleconference to promote his Open title defence at Royal Portrush in July. “I’ve achieved another dream that was to be one of the best players of the Ryder Cup and help Europe win the trophy back.

“So I think I’m at a stage where I’ve achieved my dreams and whatever comes now is going to be a bonus. I still have a lot of desire and I want to win more. I got a taste of it last year and it was great.

“For me winning is a huge motivation and spurs me on to do even more, and that’s what I’ve done this winter, working as hard as I have ever done. And I think you can see the way I’m playing that I didn’t settle, I didn’t stop.

“The dream is to keep improving. I feel like I haven’t reached my limit yet. The dream is to see how far I can go and hopefully get as many wins as possible along the way.”

While Portrush has not staged the Open itself since 1951, Molinari does have experience of the course – apart from the two new holes – after playing there in the 2012 Irish Open.

“I remember playing there the year after Darren (Clarke) had won the Open Championship and being paired with Darren the first round,” Molinari added.

“It was something I still remember, so I can only imagine what the Open is going to be; it is going to be even bigger, obviously, going back to Northern Ireland after so many years. Defending is always special, but defending in a place where the tournament has not been for so long I’m sure is going to be extra special.

“I’ve planned for a couple of weeks off before to try and prepare as good as I can and show up there giving me the best chance possible. Being a competitor, I want to do well.

“No matter how it goes, it might be the only time in my career that I get to defend a major title, you never know. So, I need to make the most of it and enjoy the reception I get from the crowd and just, yeah, you know, let it sink in even more.”

Provided by Press Association Sport

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