Rory McIlroy makes his fourth try at completing a career Grand Slam with a Masters victory next week at Augusta National, where European golfers are enjoying their greatest run of success in 25 years.
Four-time major winner McIlroy won his 14th US PGA title two weeks ago at Bay Hill, making a final round charge to capture the Arnold Palmer Invitational with what the 28-year-old from Northern Ireland called one of his best-ever rounds.
“I kept saying I didn’t need a win going into Augusta to feel like I had a chance, I just wanted to see signs of good golf, and thankfully I’ve been able to get both,” McIlroy said.
With Spain’s Sergio Garcia winning last year and Danny Willett in 2016, Europeans are on their best green jacket run since Germany’s Bernhard Langer and Spain’s Jose Maria Olazabal won in 1993-1994.
The only longer European run came when Scotsman Sandy Lyle won in 1988, England’s Nick Faldo won the next two years and Welshman Ian Woosnam took the 1991 crown.
This year offers another strong Europe contingent with Garcia defending his crown, England’s Paul Casey coming off a Valspar Championship win in March, England’s Justin Rose hoping to improve on last year’s runner-up effort and rising star Jon Rahm having won in the California desert in January.
But McIlroy’s form and his hunger to complete a career Slam draw the spotlight. He won the 2011 US Open, the 2012 and 2014 PGA Championships and the 2014 British Open and owns top-10 Masters finishes the past four years, his best showing fourth in 2015.
Only five golfers have completed the career Slam — Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen.
“I’m in a position where I can join that club and I would love to,” McIlroy said. “I only get one opportunity a year at Augusta. I’ve played well. Not well enough. Hopefully I put the last piece of the puzzle in there this year and get it done.”
It’s a rare moment in golf as Phil Mickelson tries to win the US Open to complete a career Slam after six runner-up finishes and Jordan Spieth tries to complete the career Slam with a PGA Championship title.
“Golf’s in a great place,” McIlroy said. “I feel like it’s exciting times. Obviously I’m glad to be a part of that conversation, get the first shot.”
McIlroy has found his putting form at a moment when it dearly matters as the undulating greens of Augusta National await.
“At Augusta it’s the same thing, you’re always trying to find the straight putt,” he said. “The best way to read putts is to find the straight and then try to work off there. So you’ll refer to your notes a little bit and see where those straight putts are, where you’ve hit them from before.”
– Casey, Rose have confidence –
Rose, 37, won a WGC Shanghai title and feels like he is peaking again for the Masters after losing an epic battle with Garcia last year in a playoff.
“I took a lot of confidence that I can have not my best weeks and still feel like I’m close to winning golf tournaments,” Rose said. “I’ve been looking for the extra gear for sure these last few weeks, but in some ways I feel like that’s a good place to be, with the goal in mind playing well (at Augusta).”
Casey, 40, has three top-six Masters efforts in the past three years and comes into Augusta after holding off Woods for his first US PGA victory since 2009.
“Probably the happiest I’ve ever been after any victory,” Casey said. “The big thing was putting on the weekend. That’s something I haven’t had in three of four years, a weekend of putting like that. I do have confidence after that.”
And don’t count out Garcia, who has become a husband and a father since winning his long-sought first major last April.
“Should I be a favorite? It doesn’t really matter to me,” Garcia said. “I like my game. I’m happy with my new equipment. I’m as excited as I can be to come back there and defend my title.”
© Agence France-Presse