AUGUSTA: Rory McIlroy finds himself a betting favorite at the Masters, the old man of his group for the first two rounds at age 24 and excited to test Augusta National.
As the sun sank over the layout’s trademark pine trees on the eve of the 78th Masters, cool conditions were expected to give way to four days of warm and perfect weather, firming the formidable and undulating greens on one of golf’s greatest stages.
“I would like to see that because soft conditions seem to bunch up the field a little bit,” McIlroy said. “Firmer greens and firmer conditions definitely separates it, which is a good thing.
“Thursday morning it might still be a little soft but by Thursday afternoon the course should be firm again. It will present a really good test.”
World number nine McIlroy, a two-time major champion, was on pace for a wire-to-wire Masters win in 2011 before a last-nine collapse Sunday left him sharing 15th.
The Northern Ireland star answered by winning his next major, the 2011 US Open at Congressional, and added the 2012 PGA Championship.
The Masters was the major that got away but McIlroy is seen as a sure contender this week in a wide-open field of green jacket hopefuls.
Trouble is, McIlroy said, these foes are mostly the same US PGA Tour players he has not conquered since the 2012 tour playoffs.
“Because it’s the Masters and because it’s so big or hyped up, you ought to remember you’re still playing against the same guys you play with week-in and week-out, so I’ve beaten them before, they’ve beaten me before,” he said.
“That’s why I’m saying there are so many guys here this week that will feel like they have a chance to win.”
Two of them are his playing partners, 20-year-old Jordan Spieth and 23-year-old fellow American Patrick Reed. Both are among a record 24 Masters newcomers trying to become the first first-timer to win since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
“OK, it’s Augusta and there is a certain element of experience that you need to play around here,” McIlroy said.
“But you’ve got guys that are coming here for the first time like Patrick Reed or Jordan Spieth and they are going to stand on the first tee on Thursday and think, ‘I’ve got a great shot at winning this tournament.'”
Spieth, ranked 13th, is best known for winning last July to become the first teen champion at a PGA event since 1931.
Reed, a PGA winner three times in the past eight months who is ranked 23rd, is best known for declaring himself a top-five player after his triumph last month at Doral.
“Going to be no top-five players in that group,” quipped McIlroy, whose trio is the 17th of 33 groups Thursday, teeing off at 10:52 a.m. (1452 GMT).
“First go-around here, you are always a little tentative,” McIlroy said. “They are aggressive players and they will go out there. They have shown they can play well on big stages.
“You want to respect the course. You don’t want to try to be too gung ho or go for so many shots. You need to pick your spots where you want to be aggressive.”
World number one Tiger Woods will miss the Masters for the first time in his career following back surgery last month to ease a pinched nerve.
But most players, including defending champion Adam Scott, expect a thrilling Masters even without the 14-time major champion, whose pursuit of the record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus has stalled since his 2008 US Open triumph.
“This event produces something special no matter what. It just has a way of doing it,” Scott said. “It’s not going to involve Tiger this year, but it will involve someone else and it will be a memorable event anyway.”
Augusta National chairman Billy Payne echoed those feelings.
“We miss Tiger, as does the entire golf world,” Payne said. “Nevertheless this is the Masters, what we hope is the best golf tournament in the world, one of the greatest sporting events, and I think we will have a very impressive audience and another great champion to crown.”
Another notable absence this year is the Eisenhower Tree, the century-old loblolly pine named for former US President and Augusta National member Dwight Eisenhower.
While tradition-centric Masters followers lament the loss of “Ike’s Tree” to damage from a February ice storm, players don’t mind so much the loss of the 65-foot-tall obstacle about 210 yards off the tee at the left-center of the 17th fairway.
“I have great respect for the tree, but I think the hole works better without it,” said Gary Player, the 78-year-old South African legend whose first Masters win in 1961 came the same year Eisenhower left office.