The Masters - Tiger Woods versus Rory McIlroy is familiar subplot as Danny Willett believes again

Feeling relaxed: Four-time winner Tiger Woods during a practice round ahead of the Masters. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Feeling relaxed: Four-time winner Tiger Woods during a practice round ahead of the Masters. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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Fittingly for the only major championship which is staged on the same course every year, the storylines for the 83rd Masters have a familiar air.

Can Rory McIlroy triumph at Augusta National to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in completing a career grand slam?

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, walks to the sixth green during a practice round for the Masters. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, walks to the sixth green during a practice round for the Masters. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Will Woods win his first major title since the 2008 US Open and a first green jacket since 2005 to complete one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time?

Or can the likes of Tommy Fleetwood, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler or Paul Casey continue the trend for first-time major winners at Augusta? Since 1986, only four players – Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo, Vijay Singh and Angel Cabrera – have claimed a green jacket having previously won one of the other majors. McIlroy will be hoping that is not the case and can hardly have asked to enjoy any better preparation for what is his fifth attempt to join golf’s most elite club, following five consecutive top-six finishes on the PGA Tour with victory in the Players Championship.

The 29-year-old has also finished inside the top 10 on each of his last five starts at Augusta National and was in the last group in the final round 12 months ago, only to struggle to a closing 74 and end up six shots behind playing partner Patrick Reed.

McIlroy has made an unfortunate habit of what one reporter characterised as “elimination rounds” and admitted his 77 in the last group in the third round in 2016 was a classic example of a failure in patience and resolve.

You want to come here with your A game, everyone does. We’re not quite there yet but I’m coming here a hell of a lot happier than I have done in the last two years.

Danny Willett

However, McIlroy believes that will not happen this time thanks to a combination of juggling and meditation which he explained in an unusual pre-tournament press conference.

“I’m not going to go and live with the monks for a couple months in Nepal, it’s 10 minutes a day,” said McIlroy. “It’s not as if I’m being consumed by it.

“But it’s definitely something that has helped from time to time. Especially in situations where you need your mind to be right. I meditated for 20 minutes on the morning of the Players.”

Woods did not go anywhere near as far in his press conference but there was also a semblance of a different demeanour from the 43-year-old. “I don’t really need to win again,” said Woods before smiling widely and adding: “I really want to.”

Both men do at least have the potential advantage of a morning start today, with the wind forecast to gust up to 20mph after 4pm, when the likes of Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, world No 1 Justin Rose, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka will all be approaching the back nine. Possible thunderstorms on Sunday could throw in an added complication.

One former champion feeling like he belongs is Sheffield’s Danny Willett.

Willett says he “fits in more” with the greats of the game at Augusta National as he attempts to win a second green jacket.

Willett was ranked ninth in the world after winning his maiden major title in April 2016, but had slumped outside the world’s top 450 in May last year after struggling with injuries and a subsequent loss of form.

The 31-year-old’s decline had already started by the time he became the first defending champion to miss the cut in the Masters since 2004. He missed the weekend again last year but is in far better spirits this year after November’s victory in the DP World Tour Championship.

“Everything’s better,” said Willett. “The mind’s a lot calmer and quieter because we’ve been able to do the work.”

“It’s allowed us to do more of what we need to do, rather than chasing your tail doing bits here, there and everywhere. We’ve actually been able to do the things we want to do and prepare OK.

“You want to come here with your A game, everyone does. We’re not quite there yet but I’m coming here a hell of a lot happier than I have done in the last two years.

“That enables you to enjoy nights like the Champions Dinner, enjoy sitting round with the guys. You’re sat there the last couple of years when I’ve played pretty poor and you look around and you’re across the table from Mr Watson, Mr Nicklaus and Mr Player, Tiger (Woods) and Phil (Mickelson).

“And I’m sat there thinking ‘I’m playing rubbish, I’m 300 in the world.’ It’s nice to come here after winning in November and with the game and the frame of mind better.

“You feel like you fit in a bit more and it feels a lot nicer being here with chest out, standing proud of the fact that a lot of the guys you speak to have been through hard times and, to come out of the back of it, people can respect the amount of work we did to try and get back there.”

Willett has been based in Isleworth, Florida for the first few months of the season and has yet to find top form on the PGA Tour, missing the cut in three of his seven events and recording a best finish of 25th in the Farmers Insurance Open.

But after putting in some long hours on the range at Augusta National this week, the former Ryder Cup player is confident there remains a light at the end of the tunnel.

“Our end game is definitely now within range,” Willett added. “I’ve seen what we can do in practice and I know what we can do under pressure in tournaments and it’s nice to come here and enjoy it.

“It’s a special place and it’s been a bit of a bummer the last couple of years to not fully embrace what this event is all about.”