Can Rory McIlroy end Europe’s startling Masters drought?

Rory McIlroy may have enhanced his chances of completing the career grand slam by opting out of the par-three contest, but the world No 3 still faces a tough task to end Europe’s surprising Masters drought.

The sad news Jose Maria Olazabal would not be able to compete this year due to illness brought home the fact the Spaniard’s second victory at Augusta National in 1999 remains the last by a European, a stark contrast to the time when his compatriot Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam enjoyed unrivalled success.

McIlroy’s first attempt to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in winning all four major titles ended in noble failure last year, the 26-year-old finishing fourth with a 12-under-par total which has only been bettered four times since 2000.

Opening rounds of 71 left McIlroy an incredible 12 shots behind the record pace set by Jordan Spieth, meaning scores of 68 and 66 on the weekend succeeded only in cutting his deficit in half.

And as part of an effort to get off to a faster start this week, the Irishman will not contest the traditional par-three contest tomorrow, a light-hearted event which no player has won and then gone on to win the tournament proper four days later.

“It’s a bit of a distraction and the year I had my best chance at Augusta, 2011, I didn’t play the par-three contest,” said McIlroy, who had One Direction’s Niall Horan as his caddie last year. “I already feel a little more mellow and a lot more chilled compared to the all the hype around me a year ago.”

McIlroy is the only member of the world’s top five not to have won a tournament in 2016, while former Masters champions Adam Scott and Charl Schwartzel have joined Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler in the winner’s circle this season.

All of which points to the trend for the cream to rise to the top in major championships to continue, with the days of shock winners like Todd Hamilton, Ben Curtis, Steve Jones, Shaun Micheel, Rich Beem and YE Yang appearing to be a thing of the past.

Since Darren Clarke and Keegan Bradley won the last two majors of 2011 when ranked 111th and 108th in the world, respectively, the lowest ranked winner of any major has been Ernie Els, who was 40th when he won the 2012 Open at Lytham.

However, Bradley believes a surprise winner is not out of the question as they can avoid the media spotlight on the tournament favourites.

“They have a lot of pressure to perform every week and they’re doing it,” Bradley said. “It’s definitely easy for me right now than for Jordan Spieth to come to the course to play and practice. I’ve been through that, it’s difficult.”

Meanwhile former champion Fred Couples has withdrawn from the Masters due to “acute back problems”, tournament officials have announced.

With Tiger Woods, Jim Furyk and Olazabal also ruled out due to injury and Korea’s Sang-moon Bae performing military service, only 89 players remain in the field, the fewest since 2002.

McIlroy aces 16th in practice

Rory McIlroy got his Masters preparations off to a flying start at Augusta National last night when he aced the 16th.

The world number three, on Thursday beginning his eighth attempt at winning a fabled Green Jacket, was playing his first practice holes of the week with England’s Chris Wood when he holed in one at the iconic par-three hole with a seven iron from 170 yards.

“It was great, nice practice round, seven iron, 170 yards, ended the match, beat him 3 and 2,” McIlroy said. “[The 16th] is not a pushover, everyone thinks with the pin on the left, it is a decent chance, put the pin on the right and it is a tough hole.”

Of the current course set-up, he said: “Not very different at all to what we saw last year, the way the course is now is probably like it played last year. A little soft and a bit slow. I am sure they are trying to get it faster and firmer as the week goes on. feel like my game is in good shape.”

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