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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