By Phil Casey, PA Golf Correspondent
Former US Open champion Curtis Strange has warned Rory McIlroy he faces more rivals than ever as he bids to win the Masters and complete the career grand slam.
McIlroy is joint favourite for the year’s first major championship at Augusta National with defending champion Scottie Scheffler and world number three Jon Rahm.
The Northern Irishman finished runner-up to Scheffler 12 months ago thanks to a stunning final round of 64 which included an eagle and six birdies, the last coming from a greenside bunker on the 18th.
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McIlroy, 33, has also been in good form this season, winning in Dubai, finishing runner-up in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and reaching the semi-finals of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play before beating Scheffler in the third/fourth place play-off.
“I think everybody is rooting for him, for a lot of different reasons,” Strange, the 1988 and 1989 US Open champion and ESPN analyst said.
“His talent level is equal to or better than anybody else out there. I think Jon Rahm is a spectacular strong player, but there’s a lot of young guns out there now that have the strength, the length, the ability to challenge.
“I actually think this year there might be more names on that list that Rory has to beat, and fearless names. But he’s certainly capable. He’s playing well. I think if he can make a few putts, he’s certainly going to be there Sunday afternoon.”
Strange, who finished joint second behind Bernhard Langer in the 1985 Masters, believes the two players who got the better of McIlroy and Scheffler at Austin Country Club could also challenge for a green jacket at Augusta.
“A guy like Sam Burns, we know how good a player this guy has been, but now all of a sudden he comes into the Masters in great form,” Strange added.
“I look at players, their talent level of course, but what’s their current form? Cam Young, I just think this guy is so strong that he’s going to burst on the scene much like Scheffler did two years ago.
“He looks like to me he could be dominating much like I think a Jon Rahm could be dominating.”
McIlroy went into the WGC-Match Play event with a new driver and putter and another two-time US Open winner, Andy North, was impressed with what he saw.
“I do like the changes that he made prior to last week,” North said. “I think he looked very, very confident with the driver. It was just a bit shorter, which he said helps him get the club back in front of him. He can be a little bit more aggressive with it.
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“I thought in stretches he putted really nicely. There’s some other stretches he didn’t, but the bottom line is that his game when he’s rolling is so good, and Augusta National fits what he likes to do so well.
“Can he putt well there? Can he have a week where he putts well? I thought we really saw some stretches where he made a ton of six, eight, nine-footers, and to me those are the critical putts at Augusta.
“If you make all those kind of putts, you’re going to have a great week.”