CHARLIE MULQUEEN: Team McIlroy set for three-week break as Augusta looms

HAVING consolidated his place at the top of the world rankings by finishing third in the WGC Cadillac event at the weekend, Rory McIlroy takes a three-week break before the Masters at Augusta on April 5.

The bookmakers make the 22-year-old Ulsterman a clear 4/1 favourite, hardly generous when you consider the trauma he suffered on the final day 12 months ago and the massive pressure he will be under. On the other hand, the price is based on McIlroy’s consistency and his last three weeks in particular when he reached the final of the WGC Accenture World Match Play Championship, won the Honda Classic and came third over the Blue Monster course at Doral.

McIlroy’s swing seems to be better than ever and he is following the advice of the great Jack Nicklaus by avoiding tinkering or experimentation. To ensure he sticks rigidly to that policy. Michael Bannon, who has coached him from the very beginning of his remarkable career, joins him in Florida this week.

Also there will be JP Fitzgerald, the caddie whom McIlroy stood loyally by when the going got rough last summer and who is now widely recognised as being central to Rory’s ongoing success. Off the course, Conor Ridge and Colin Morrissey of Horizon Sports Management go to every one of his tournaments, ensuring their precious client has nothing but his golf to concern him.

In every way, Team McIlroy seems to be getting things just right.

That’s not the case for Tiger Woods. Prior to Sunday night, he was the bookies favourite for the Masters but hobbled out of the event citing an Achilles tendon problem. His immediate future was put very much in doubt although he is still second favourite for Augusta at 13/2 followed by Phil Mickelson at 7/1, Lee Westwood 14/1 and Luke Donald at 18/1.

Aside from McIlroy, the bookies don’t give the Irish a chance at Augusta, laying Graeme McDowell at 50/1, Padraig Harrington at 66/1 and Darren Clarke at 125/1. Perhaps this is no great surprise given that McDowell has slipped back to 17th in world rankings and Clarke and Harrington to 57th and 90th respectively.

Harrington returns this week in the Transition Championship at Inisbrook Resort, Florida. Luke Donald will hope to reduce McIlroy’s lead at the top of the world rankings while Justin Rose tees it up on a high after his fine victory at Doral, a result that has moved him up to seventh in the rankings. Other Europeans in the field for the $5.5m (€4.1m) event include Peter Hanson, Sergio Garcia and Tom Lewis.

After three quiet weeks, the European Tour resumes with the Andalucia Open over the splendid Aloha course near the well-known Puerto Banus resort on Thursday.

As usual, the prize fund is a modest €1m but that hasn’t prevented a surprisingly strong field from signing up. There are five major champions, Spain’s own Jose-Maria Olazabal; Paul Lawrie, Michael Campbell, Rich Beem and Mike Weir while the direct Irish interest is represented by Michael Hoey, Shane Lowry, Peter Lawrie, Damien McGrane, Gareth Maybin and Simon Thornton.

The presence of Canadian Mike Weir is of special interest given he surprised the golfing world and no doubt himself by winning the Masters at Augusta in 2003.

He now returns to a part of Spain where he also held off Tiger Woods at the height of his powers to capture the American Express World Championship at Valderrama in 2000. He got in ahead of Phil Mickelson to become the first left handed Masters champion but elbow surgery has kept him out of the limelight.


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