Rory McIlroy returns to fray in Houston ahead of US Masters
Darren Clarke and Pádraig Harrington also take part in Augusta momentum-builder
Rory McIlroy’s spring hibernation, such as it was, has come to an end. In being very selective in when and where he has played so far this year, the 24- year-old Ulsterman has, in racing parlance, been lightly raced in carefully mapping out a schedule with his focus very much on next week’s US Masters.
McIlroy, who hasn’t played since the WGC-Cadillac Championship three weeks ago, resumes tournament play at the Shell Houston Open where five of the world’s top-10 are aiming to use the event as a momentum-builder towards Augusta.
At least McIlroy returns to tournament duty in the full of his health, unlike a number of other players – most notably Phil Mickelson – who are bothered by strains of one kind or another. Mickelson pulled a muscle in the third round of the Texas Open over the weekend, which forced his withdrawal, but still hopes to tee-up on Thursday following treatment at home in San Diego in recent days.
Veteran Fred Couples, though, has withdrawn from the tournament due to a recurrence of back injury, and his main concern is to be fit in time for the Masters. Likewise, Tiger Woods, also struggling with a back injury, hasn’t played since the Cadillac Championship and is continuing to receive treatment ahead of the Masters.
McIlroy is one of three Irish players in the field, along with fellow-Ulsterman Darren Clarke and Dubliner Pádraig Harrington. For Harrington, this is the last chance saloon in terms of earning an invite to the Masters. With the exemptions from his two Major wins of 2008 now expired, Harrington needs to win in Houston to claim the last invite to Augusta. It has happened twice before: Johnson Wagner in 2008 and DA Points last year.
McIlroy is looking for his first win of the year. Following his success in December in the Australian Open, he has knocked on the door a number of times this season – finishing runner-up twice, in Abu Dhabi and the Honda Classic – and this week will provide a further indication of where his game is at.
While McIlroy and Clarke use the Houston Open as a fine-tuner for Augusta and Harrington has a last throw of the dice in his quest to get there, the dual-badge NH Collection Open at Sotogrande provides a quintet of Irishmen the opportunity to get back to competitive golf on the European Tour.
Shane Lowry, Simon Thornton, Damien McGrane, Peter Lawrie and Kevin Phelan are all in the field for the new event, which has the distinction of being the first tournament of the season on European soil.
Although the €600,000 purse is one of the smallest on the circuit, it is probably an indication of the lack of events at this time of year that no fewer than 44 players who have had wins on the European Tour at some point or other are included in the field. One of them, Santiago Luna, will be making his 597th European Tour appearance at Sotogrande, taking him to seventh in the all-time list of most events played.
Alejandro Canizares, winner of the Hassan Trophy in Morocco last month, has the advantage of being a local and is one of the favourites.
“Right now I feel I’m in the best position to move forward and try to break into the world’s top 50 – that’s my next goal. In order to get there I need to achieve smaller objectives: I want to put myself in contention week after week and to finish consistently in the top 10. If I manage to stay grounded, keep my focus and try my best on every shot, the higher objectives will take care of themselves.
“When I turned pro in 2006, my dream was to win on the European Tour, and I fulfilled it straight away at the Russian Open. It was only my third appearance and I felt on top of the world, but it probably came too soon. It’s been nearly eight years of learning experience between my two victories, mainly building up confidence. I knew I had the game in me, but I had to learn to believe in myself,” said Canizares.
Steven Bowditch claimed the first PGA Tour victory of his career on Sunday, despite finishing with a final-day 76 at the Valero Texas Open, and in the process earned himself an invitation to the US Masters.
The Australian, ranked 339th in the world, started the last day with a three-shot lead and he needed that advantage after shooting a four-over-par round to end the tournament on eight under to edge out Americans Will MacKenzie (70) and Daniel Summerhays (71).