Tiger Woods will 'surprise us all' at Masters – McIlroy
Woods will compete in Augusta on Thursday, but few commentators expect the fading former champion to be a contender
Rory McIlroy has welcomed the news that Tiger Woods will be appearing in this year's Masters tournament and believes the former world number one can "surprise us all".
Woods has endured a miserable start to 2015, dropping outside the top 100 rankings for the first time in nearly 20 years after shooting a career-worst 82 at the Phoenix Open in February. For the past fortnight, the golf world has waited to discover if the 39-year-old would show up at Augusta, Georgia, on Thursday for the first Major of the year, and the waiting ended over the Easter period with confirmation that he will play at the Masters.
"I've worked a lot on my game and I'm looking forward to competing," wrote Woods on his website. "I'm excited to get to Augusta and I appreciate everyone's support.”
Few pundits expect Woods to seriously challenge for the title he's won four times in the past, but McIlroy says Woods’ mere presence will be good for the game – and he certainly isn't writing off his rival's chances.
"Golf is always that bit more exciting with Tiger in the field," declared the Northern Irishman. "It would be foolish to rule him out as a contender – he has got that remarkable ability to surprise us all."
Woods arrived at Augusta on Monday and spent the afternoon enjoying a practice round in the company of fellow US golf pro Mark O'Meara.
"I felt good and it was nice to get out here," Woods said later. "The last two months has been a process for me but I'm in a good place now."
If Woods makes the cut at Augusta it would be an achievement given his lack of competitive golf in the last four months, but the fact he's even competing could work out to McIlroy's advantage. Former Ryder Cup captain turned Sky Sports commentator Paul McGinley reckons Woods' presence "will help take the spotlight off the Ulsterman" as he bids to win his first Masters.
McIlroy, 25, has won the PGA Championship, US Open and Open in the last four years, and he famously led the Augusta field going into the final round in 2011 before crumbling on the final day. Last year, he tied for eighth – his best showing at the Masters – and McGinley says the young golfer has improved since then.
"Certainly he is a far more equipped and better golfer, and more focused golfer than he was 12 months ago," explained McGinley. "He's getting there, he knows he's not the finished article and he knows there are certain conditions he still needs to prove himself in, to be considered one of the real greats of the game."
To do that McIlroy must win at least another half a dozen Majors before he can be compared to the likes of Woods (14 Major victories) and the incomparable Jack Nicklaus (18 victories).
McIlroy has got time on his side given his young age, but McGinley says it's staying focused that will be tough. "The biggest challenge Rory has got is keeping the fire lit," he said. "Keeping the fire lit in his hear – that is what made Tiger phenomenal [and] at the top for as long as he was."