Masters wide-open, says McIlroy
Rory McIlroy, shown in Dubai in January 2014, believes golf is at a crossroads as the top players fine-tune their preparations for next week's Masters and he is determined to be the one to show the way forward - by Marwan Naamani
The 24-year-old Irishman has two major titles under his belt -- the 2011 US Open and the 2012 PGA Championship -- but he endured a torrid 12 months last year when equipment changes, business wrangles and personal matters got in the way of his supreme natural talent.
That all seems to be a thing of the past as the McIlroy machine is back into top gear with a win in Australia in December followed by two runner-up finishes at Abu Dhabi and in the Honda Classic.
On top of that, with world number one Tiger Woods absent through injury, Phil Mickelson also not fully fit and defending champion Adam Scott inconsistent, he has suddenly found himself installed as the betting favourite for the year's first major.
It's a role he relishes, but insists there are several players who have just as good a chance as he has to win a wide-open Masters.
"I mean, you look at the winners on Tour the last few months, it's been a different guy each week," he said ahead of this week's Houston Open, the final tournament before Augusta National.
"It's almost like golf is waiting for someone to stamp their authority on the game and be that dominant player.
"We've seen players in the past like Tiger and Vijay (Singh) to a certain point in the middle 2000s winning nine, 10 times a year. Haven't seen much of that since then, and, you know, it's harder to win out here.
"There's so many more guys that have chances to win every time they tee it up. So I don't think it's just the Masters but golf in general is just very wide open at the moment, and I think a few guys need to put their hands up and try and be the dominant player because that's what people like to see.
"It's great for the sport to have people who are up there week in, week out that win tournaments, and then that creates sort of rivalries, and that's something we haven't really had in golf for a couple of years.
"And, you know, me personally as a fan of golf, it would be nice to see someone sort of break away. I hope it's me. I hope it's me as a fan of golf and fan of myself that I can do that."
- Bizarre omens -
If McIlroy believed in omens, he could take some encouragement from the bizarre fact that Woods has missed just four majors since turning pro in 1996 and on each of those occasions an Irishman has gone on to win.
The first two occasions were in 2008 when Padraig Harrington won back-to-back majors at the British Open and the PGA Championship.
Then in 2011 McIlroy himself won the US Open and Darren Clarke the British Open a month later as Woods was recovering from leg surgery.
Clarke will be in the field at Augusta, but off-form Harrington needs to win in Houston to punch his ticket for Georgia.
Another Irishman, Graeme McDowell, meanwhile has chosen to get ready for the year's first major at the Mountain Lake resort in Florida close to his US home at Lake Nona.
The 2010 US Open champion has struggled to make much of an impact to date in the Masters, failing to have a top 10 finish in six previous appearances with three missed cuts.
Bu he believes similarities between Augusta National and Mountain Lake could boost his chances of being among the contenders come Sunday.
"Mountain Lake is a great course where there are very Augusta-like greens and where I practiced last year before heading for the Masters," he said.
"I've been in touch with the guys down there and they are going to have the greens running nice and quick and I'm going to go down there for a couple of days to work on my putting and chipping.
"So I will be having no shortage of practice sessions before heading up to Augusta on Sunday evening."