Rory McIlroy leading charge to end European Masters drought
Jose Maria Olazabal was the last European to win at Augusta National back in 1999
Rory McIlroy is aiming to be the first European winner of the Masters since 1999. Photograph: Getty
Rory McIlroy may have enhanced his chances of completing the career grand slam by opting out of the par-three contest, but the world number three still faces a tough task to end Europe’s surprising Masters drought.
The sad news that Jose Maria Olazabal would not be able to compete this year due to illness brought home the fact that the Spaniard’s second victory at Augusta National in 1999 remains the last by a European, a stark contrast to the time when his compatriot Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam enjoyed unrivalled success.
McIlroy’s first attempt to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in winning all four major titles ended in noble failure last year, the 26-year-old finishing fourth with a 12-under-par total which has only been bettered four times since 2000.
Opening rounds of 71 left McIlroy an incredible 12 shots behind the record pace set by Jordan Spieth, meaning that scores of 68 and 66 on the weekend succeeded only in cutting his deficit in half.
And as part of an effort to get off to a faster start this week, the Northern Irishman will not contest the traditional par-three contest on Wednesday, a light-hearted event which no player has won and then gone on to win the tournament proper four days later.
“It’s a bit of a distraction and the year I had my best chance at Augusta, 2011, I didn’t play the par-three contest,” said McIlroy, who had One Direction’s Niall Horan as his caddie last year. “I already feel a little more mellow and a lot more chilled compared to the all the hype around me a year ago.”
McIlroy is the only member of the world’s top five not to have won a tournament in 2016, while former Masters champions Adam Scott and Charl Schwartzel have joined Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler in the winner’s circle this season.
All of which points to the trend for the cream to rise to the top in major championships to continue, with the days of shock winners like Todd Hamilton, Ben Curtis, Steve Jones, Shaun Micheel, Rich Beem and YE Yang appearing to be a thing of the past.
Since Darren Clarke and Keegan Bradley won the last two majors of 2011 when ranked 111th and 108th in the world respectively, the lowest ranked winner of any major has been Ernie Els, who was 40th when he won the 2012 Open at Lytham.
In 2013, Scott was ranked seventh when he won the Masters, Justin Rose fifth before his US Open triumph at Merion and Phil Mickelson also fifth before his Open victory at Muirfield. Jason Dufner was 21st when he won the US PGA Championship at Oak Hill.
Watson was 12th before claiming his second green jacket in 2014, Martin Kaymer 28th ahead of his wire-to-wire victory in the US Open and McIlroy eighth before lifting the Claret Jug at Hoylake. Following his victory in the Bridgestone Invitational, McIlroy had reclaimed top spot in the world rankings by the time he won the US PGA at Valhalla.
As for 2015, Spieth was fourth and second respectively before his Masters and US Open triumphs, Zach Johnson 25th before winning the Open and Day fifth before arriving at Whistling Straits.
However, Bradley believes a surprise winner is not out of the question as they can avoid the media spotlight on the tournament favourites.
“They have a lot of pressure on them to perform every week and they’re doing it,” Bradley said. “It’s definitely easy for me right now than for Jordan Spieth to come to the course to play and practice. I’ve been through that and it’s difficult.”