Player backing McIlroy after his show of mental strength

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Gary Player, who becomes an official starter for the Masters this week, is tipping Rory McIlroy to end the week as winner.

The Northern Irishman will need to banish thoughts of last year’s final-round meltdown in Augusta, and Player is in no doubt McIlroy has the mental strength to come out on top.

“I think Rory has a little revenge in his heart for the golf course,” said Player, who will join Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer on Thursday morning to hit the ceremonial opening drives.

“You remember last year he was playing so well and was leading and he had that collapse in the final round with an 80.

“The way he recovered from that upset at the US Open a couple of months later showed what maturity he has. The disappointment might have seriously affected a less mentally strong young man.”

But Player, who is writing a blog on the tournament for the Laureus Sports Awards website, expects Tiger Woods to be a danger to the Northern Irishman.

“He played extremely well when he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational the week before last – it’s the first time I’ve seen him drive the ball well in a long time.

“He’s going to be very, very tough at Augusta. He knows the course (Woods has four Masters titles to his name), he’s confident.

“He’s had a tough time for two years and he’s very hungry – I expect him to do extremely well.

“Can Tiger beat Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championship wins? His two years away from the game has certainly disrupted what seemed to be an inevitable progression to that record. To what degree, I don’t know.

“He certainly has the ability to do it, but it would be very foolish to predict what would happen because he has got to win five more majors to pass Jack – a very difficult task.

“But he is a man with such focus and dedication and hunger, I don’t see anyone else quite like that in the game of golf today.”

Woods has been stuck on 14 since the 2008 US Open. He underwent knee reconstruction surgery after that and was out for eight months, then had more time off after becoming embroiled in a sex scandal that cost him his marriage to Swede Elin Nordegren.

Despite those lay-offs he has finished fourth in the last two Masters.

England’s Justin Rose, asked whether Woods, McIlroy or world No 1 Luke Donald should be favourite for the week, had a neat answer.

“I think Sean Foley is the favourite,” he said.

Foley is coach to Woods, Rose and Hunter Mahan, who had his second victory of the season in the Houston Open at the weekend.