Golf: Pressure is off Rory and that could be crucial

Rory McIlroy came second in the Texas Open on Sunday, his best finish this term, after switching clubs. Picture: Getty
Rory McIlroy came second in the Texas Open on Sunday, his best finish this term, after switching clubs. Picture: Getty
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BUTCH HARMON believes Rory McIlroy can prove the cynics wrong in this week’s Masters – due to the fact he’s no longer world No. 1.

The two-time major winner has been written off in some quarters for the opening major of the year after a stuttering start to his season.

Struggling with his new Nike clubs, McIlroy hadn’t shown any form at all until he finished second behind Martin Laird in the Texas Open on Sunday.

Prior to that, Colin Montgomerie didn’t pick McIlroy among his eight top contenders for the Green Jacket at Augusta National. But Harmon, who will be working alongside the Scot as part of the Sky Sports team in Georgia, is adamant the 23-year-old can put himself in the mix on Sunday.

“I think that Rory will start to play better when he’s not No. 1 and he gets away from all the questions and all the demands on his time,” said the top American coach.

“All of a sudden, he won’t have to do the extra press conferences and I think we’ll see Rory relax a little.”

With three wins under his belt already this year and also back on top of the world, Woods looks the man to beat this week.

He’s not won the Masters since 2005, while the most recent of his 14 majors came three years after that in the US Open.

But Harmon, whose son Claude was based at Kings Acre Golf Club on the outskirts of the Capital for a spell, said: “There has never been a golfer like 
Tiger Woods. I think Jack Nicklaus is our greatest champion because he has won more majors than anyone, but I’ve never seen anybody who could play golf like Tiger could play.

“I’ll be 70 this year. I’ve seen just about every great player that’s ever played and I’ve never seen anybody as good as Tiger.

“I think everything he does is phenomenal and, with his recent form and his confidence level getting better, I think it really looks for a great Masters.”

Not that Harmon expects his former star pupil to turn the event into a one-man show. Far from it, in fact.

“Tiger and Phil Mickelson are always going to be the two favourites because the course lends itself to them,” he added.

“It presents a lot of problems short-game wise around the greens and Tiger and Phil are two of the best in the world at that.

“They both have extensive knowledge of the golf course, of the greens, of how to play holes even though one’s right handed and one’s left handed.

“They have a phenomenal knowledge of how to get themselves around that course.

“I also hope Rory is in the equation and I think it’s going to be interesting to see how that pans out.”

South African Louis Oosthuizen, beaten in a play-off by Bubba Watson 12 months ago, is one of Harmon’s dangermen, as are American duo Matt 
Kuchar and Brendt Snedeker.

He also fancies the prospects of a colourful duo in Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia. But he 
believes English pair Luke Donald and Justin Rose both have shortcomings that could hinder their chances of landing a first major title.

“If you look at the world 
rankings, Luke Donald is right there in good shape,” he said. “But I don’t know if he drives the ball enough to play good at Augusta. His game is good enough, but I don’t know if his driving is good enough.

“Oosthuizen looks good, Rose, should also play well there, but I’m not sure his short game is 100 per cent as good as it needs to be there.

“Snedeker played well there last year and had a chance while Kuchar has played well this year and has already won.

“Poulter does have the short game and the putter to win at Augusta and boy, wouldn’t that be something. To have had Bubba Watson win last year and to follow that up with Ian Poulter, that would be something.

“Graeme McDowell obviously has the game to do it, he has the whole package. He is a great player, he drives the ball good and his short game is good.

“I think Sergio will have a good chance at Augusta, I think his game suits it, I really do.

“You look at the obvious, the long hitters and everybody thinks ‘well the long hitters have a great chance’ and so on and so forth, but I think if you don’t have a short game to match your long game or imagination and creativity around the green, it hurts you at Augusta.

“Sergio has all of those qualities and now that he putts 
better I think Sergio is one that we’d better think about this week.”