McIlroy can take advantage of wide-open Masters if he clears opening hurdle

All four Irish golfers at Augusta strike confident tone ahead of opening round

Truly, this 86th edition of the Masters offers the promise of fulfilment. Not just in Tiger Woods’s return to competition – with a scorecard in his back pocket for the first time since suffering horrific injuries in a car crash some 14 months ago – or that a new brat pack of young guns are to the forefront in wishing to add a Green Jacket to their wardrobes; rather, that a sizeable contingent of Irish players, four in all, enter the fray with genuine grand designs of their own.

Indeed, the quartet – Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry, Séamus Power and even Pádraig Harrington – have enjoyed the sort of bonding and camaraderie of practice rounds and short game challenges that, apart from sharpening their games, appeared to take away any stressful build-up.

For McIlroy, always weighed down with greater expectations in this week of all weeks in an ongoing quest to complete the career Grand Slam, the relaxed nature of it all could yet provide the stimulus that has been a missing ingredient in past efforts.

McIlroy was frank and honest in fronting up to his past failings, having contended without getting over the line in the past: “I guess if I find myself in that position again, whether it’s this year or years down the line, I think being okay with not winning is not a bad thing.

“I think sometimes the fear of losing can cripple you and make you tentative and not play the golf you want to play, so actually confronting that fear and thinking I’m going to play my game and, if I play that game, I’ll have a great chance to win. And if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”

He added: “I’ve had 13 years in a row of not happening, so I feel like I don’t have much to lose at this point.”

McIlroy may not have won – yet – in his bid to add a Masters to the two US PGAs, the US Open and the British Open he has lifted in his career to date, but his record around Augusta National (six top-10s in the last eight years) is such that he starts out knowing that he has the game to contend and win. That is, if he can get off to a strong, even solid, opening round.

Too often, McIlroy has played his way out of the tournament in the first round only to come back strongly over the weekend (a quick remarkable statistic since McIlroy’s last Major win in 2014 is that he is a combined 34 over par in the first round, and 60 under par in rounds two to four).

So, the task will be not to play his way out of it before he ever gets going.

Yet, McIlroy is not the only one with eyes on the great prize, the Masters remaining the only Major yet to be claimed by an Irish golfer. And, with each and every one of them, the words “patience” and “discipline” surface time and time again.

Lowry, who has contended a number of times so far this year in a strong start to the PGA Tour without getting over the winning line, observed: “I just want to get out there and play my golf and hit the shot in front of me. I think I can play well this week. I’m quietly confident about how I am going into this, in my eyes probably the biggest tournament of the year now. I feel in good form. I’m ready to go. I’m looking forward to it.”

And Power, making his debut, has been awed but not overawed at what he has found: “I feel good with my game. It’s my first Major, a first Masters. I’m excited . . . I always thought it would suit my game. We’ll see. My expectations are high.”

Harrington, too, has intent. “In my world,” he said, “ I believe I can win . . . it is about getting my head in the right place, about having the right attitude. It was a help being in contention [on the Champions Tour] last week. I know it is well within me, I just have to go out and do my thing.”

Truth is, a large number of players head into the season's first men's Major of the year with belief that this is their time. From Woods, to those young guns – be it Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa or Viktor Hovland, all under 30 years of age, or Patrick Cantlay at the grand old age of 30 – looking to add their names to the grand tradition. It looks set to be a wide-open affair.

Philip Reid’s Masters Lowdown

Purse: €10.5 million (€1.9 million to the winner) *2021 purse . This year's official prizemoney will be announced on Saturday.

Where: Augusta, Georgia, USA.

The course: Augusta National – 7,475 yards Par 72 – is, as Séamus Power observed this week, "like a golfing Mecca". The course was the vision of the great Bobby Jones who, upon coming across the former Fruitlands nursery in his quest to find a suitable piece of land, remarked: "Perfect! And to think this ground has been lying here all these years waiting for someone to come along and lay a golf course on it." The land was purchased for $70,000 and Dr Alister MacKenzie was given the task of designing a layout that became the home of the Masters.

A couple of design changes have been made to the course ahead of this latest edition of the tournament. The par-4 11th hole has been stretched from 505 yards to 520 yards but, rather than added length, the removal of 15 trees down the right-hand side has served to change the dynamics of the hole. The par-5 15th, which has traditionally played as the easiest through the tournament, has increased in length by 20 yards to 550 yards.

The field: Apart from the absent Phil Mickelson who has been listed among the "past champions" of the event (missing the tournament for the first time in 28 years), it really is a Who's Who of golf, with added spice served by Tiger Woods's long-awaited return to competitive action after rehabilitating from career-threatening leg injuries.

Scottie Scheffler heads in as world number one but any one of five players – Scheffler, Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland or Patrick Cantlay – could potentially leave Sunday night atop the rankings. Hideki Matsuyama, who last year became the first Japanese male player to win a Major when donning the green jacket, is the defending champion but has struggled with a neck injury for the past month.

Quote-Unquote: "In my case, being the only Spanish player who's been a Major champion but not a Masters champion, it's a little different. Hopefully I can be the fourth on that list. There's a lot of good Spanish history here that I would love to add on to. Obviously, it is the Masters. It is an iconic golf course. And being the only Major that plays the same venue every year makes it very special" – Jon Rahm on looking to become the latest Spanish player to wear a Green Jacket, joining Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Sergio Garcia.

Irish in the field: A quartet of Irish players, with Pádraig Harrington – who has two morning starts local time by a quirk of the timesheet – out in the first round with Mike Weir and amateur Austin Greaser (1.11pm Irish time); Shane Lowry is in a group with Max Homa and Kevin Na (3.01pm); Séamus Power, on his debut, is grouped with former champion Patrick Reed and Lucas Herbert (5.24pm); while Rory McIlroy is in the last group of the day alongside Brooks Koepka and Matt Fitzpatrick (7.03pm).

On TV: Live coverage on Sky Sports from 2pm. Thursday's features groups are – surprise, surprise – Tiger Woods, Louis Oosthuizen and Joaquin Niemann at 3.34pm Irish time and Adam Scott, Scottie Scheffler and Tony Finau at 3.56pm.

Thursday's tee-times (all times Irish)
(USA unless stated, * denotes amateur)

12.40 Gary Player (honorary starter), Jack Nicklaus (honorary starter), Tom Watson (honorary starter)

1.0 Jose Maria Olazabal (Spain), JJ Spaun
1.11 Mike Weir (Canada), Pádraig Harrington (Ireland), *Austin Greaser
1.22 Larry Mize, Sepp Straka (Austria), Francesco Molinari (Italy)
1.33 Fred Couples, Garrick Higgo (S Africa), Guido Migliozzi (Italy)
1.44 Vijay Singh (Fiji), Ryan Palmer, Kyoung-Hoon Lee (Korea)
1.55 Min Woo Lee (Australia), Hudson Swafford, Cameron Young

2.06 Stewart Cink, Brian Harman, Harry Higgs
2.17 Zach Johnson, Si Woo Kim (Korea), *Aaron Jarvis (Cayman Islands)
2.39 Luke List, Matthew Wolff, Mackenzie Hughes (Canada)
2.50 Danny Willett (England), Jason Kokrak , Talor Gooch

3.01 Max Homa, Kevin Na, Shane Lowry (Ireland)
3.12 Kevin Kisner, Daniel Berger, Tommy Fleetwood (England)
3.23 Bryson DeChambeau, Cameron Smith (Australia), Paul Casey (England)
3.34 Tiger Woods, Louis Oosthuizen (S Africa), Joaquin Niemann (Chile)
3.45 Hideki Matsuyama (Japan), Justin Thomas, *James Piot
3.56 Adam Scott (Australia), Scottie Scheffler, Tony Finau

4.18 Sandy Lyle (Scotland), *Stewart Hagestad
4.29 Lucas Glover, Erik van Rooyen (S Africa), Cameron Champ
4.40 Bernhard Langer (Germany), Christiaan Bezuidenhout (S Africa), Cameron Davis (Australia)
4.51 Charl Schwartzel (S Africa), Robert MacIntyre (Scotland), *Laird Shepherd (England)

5.02 Gary Woodland, Justin Rose (England), Takumi Kanaya (Japan)
5.13 Lee Westwood (England), Russell Henley, Corey Conners (Canada)
5.24 Patrick Reed, Séamus Power (Ireland), Lucas Herbert (Australia)
5.35 Bubba Watson, Tom Hoge, *Keita Nakajima (Japan)
5.57 Marc Leishman (Australia), Webb Simpson, Sungjae Im (Korea)

6.08 Sergio Garcia (Spain), Thomas Pieters (Belgium), Harold Varner III
6.19 Abraham Ancer (Mexico), Tyrrell Hatton (England), Sam Burns
6.30 Dustin Johnson, Billy Horschel, Collin Morikawa
6.41 Will Zalatoris, Patrick Cantlay, Jon Rahm (Spain)
6.52 Jordan Spieth, Viktor Hovland (Norway), Xander Schauffele

7.03 Matthew Fitzpatrick (England), Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland)

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