Rory McIlroy expects wide open battle for green jacket at Augusta National

Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy
Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy believes almost three-quarters of the 97-strong field can win the US Masters, while Justin Rose neatly summed up an unpredictable season so far.

But when the 78th Masters gets under way on Thursday at Augusta National, statistics suggest the cream will again rise to the top, even without the injured world number one and four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods.

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 a major has been Ernie Els, who was 40th when he won the 2012 Open at Lytham.

McIlroy is rated the tournament favourite despite a best finish of 15th in five previous Masters appearances.

That came when he held a four-shot lead heading into the final round before collapsing to a closing 80, but the former world number one believes there will be no excuses if he does put himself into contention come the back nine on Sunday.

“I certainly feel comfortable on the golf course here,” said the 24-year-old. “There’s a lot of guys that seems like once they drive up Magnolia Lane, something sort of lights up inside them.

“I’m disappointed that my best finish was only 15th. I feel like I’ve played better than that and haven’t quite got the results. Hopefully I can change that this week.”

At least one omen is in McIlroy’s favour, with Irish golfers winning the last four major championships that Woods has missed through injury; Padraig Harrington won the Open and US PGA in 2008, McIlroy claimed the 2011 US Open and Darren Clarke won the Open at Sandwich a month later.

Whether McIlroy, Clarke or Graeme McDowell can continue that remarkable streak remains to be seen.

Rose, meanwhile, believes the unique challenges of Augusta National mean that McIlroy’s estimate of 70 potential winners is way too high.

“I think Augusta is different,” said Rose, who was fifth here in 2007 and has led at some point during every round without leading when it really matters.

“There’s so much course knowledge that you build up through the years that definitely swings the pendulum in the favour of the more experienced player.

“I would say 15 guys separate themselves a lot from the field. Always you can have the unknowns that can happen, but I would say 15 guys are pretty strong favourites.”

Last year, Adam Scott was ranked seventh when he won the Masters, Rose fifth before his US Open triumph at Merion and Phil Mickelson also fifth before his Open victory at Muirfield. Jason Dufner was 21st when he won the US PGA Championship at Oak Hill.

The list of winners on the PGA Tour this season does not have such a familiar ring to it, with the likes of Matt Every, Steven Bowditch, Matt Jones, Scott Stallings and Russell Henley all tasting victory.

Former Masters champion Zach Johnson is the only member of the world’s top 10 to have won a strokeplay tournament in 2014, with world number four Jason Day out of action with a thumb injury since his victory in the WGC-Accenture Match Play.

The quality of the 24 rookies in the field also cannot be overlooked.

Rose includes himself, McIlroy, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter in that 15, which is good news for those hoping for an end to a 15-year European victory drought in a major championship which had previously provided a rich seam of success.