sport

McIlroy hopes to have found key

Rory McIlroy will hope he has finally found the secret to successful Masters preparation as he competes in this week's Shell Houston Open.

McIlroy has yet to record a top-10 finish in five appearances at Augusta National, his 'best' result being joint 15th in 2011 when he led by four shots going into the final round, only to collapse to a closing 80.

On that occasion, the 24-year-old did not play for three weeks before the year's first major championship, an approach he repeated in 2012 in the belief that he usually performed well when fresh.

That did not transpire and a finish of 40th at Augusta prompted a rethink, with 2013 seeing the Northern Irishman playing in Houston and at the Valero Texas Open before the Masters.

It looked to be a good idea as McIlroy was only denied victory in Texas by a brilliant closing 63 from Scotland's Martin Laird, but again there was to be no green jacket a week later. A third round of 79 was followed by a closing 69, but that was only good enough for a share of 25th.

McIlroy's most recent appearance saw him finish 25th in the WGC-Cadillac Championship in early March, although he has recorded two runners-up finishes in 2014 in Abu Dhabi and at the Honda Classic, where he lost out in a play-off.

One good omen for the former world number one could be that the last four majors that Tiger Woods missed through injury were all won by Irish golfers.

McIlroy won the 2011 US Open and Darren Clarke took the Open Championship a month later, while in 2008 Padraig Harrington won both the Open and US PGA Championship.

However, Harrington has yet to qualify for the Masters and has to win in Houston to avoid missing the trip to Augusta for the first time since 2009. The 42-year-old Dubliner is a lowly 189th in the FedEx Cup standings after making just three cuts in seven starts this season.

Harrington is not the only major champion set to miss out, with 2006 US Open winner Geoff Ogilvy also needing a win in Houston. The Australian was 11th in last week's Valero Texas Open.

Former world number one Luke Donald, European number one Henrik Stenson and Spain's Sergio Garcia are also in the field, while Phil Mickelson will partner Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson in the first two rounds if he has recovered from the pulled muscle which forced him out of the third round in Texas last week.

American DA Points returns to defend the title he won last year with a putter famously borrowed from his mother.

"I still am using the same putter and really I've been putting well with it ever since," Points said. "It hasn't maybe been quite as hot as it was at this event last year.

"I've been putting good and the stroke and all that part of my game feels good. My mom hasn't asked for the putter back because she knows she is not going to see it again."

McIlroy told BBC Sport: "You are getting so many different winners and there are not as many guys dominating the sport like in the past with Tiger, Vijay (Singh) and Phil (Mickelson).

"I'd like to establish myself as that sort of player and someone's got to step up so I'm trying to be that person and it would be a great place to start next week."

On Woods' injury, the world number seven added: "I knew that it was going to happen but I didn't realise it was so serious that he needed surgery.

"Obviously everyone wishes him a speedy recovery and hopefully he gets back very soon because golf is better with Tiger Woods playing.

"He's had four operations on his left knee, he's had operations on his Achilles. There are obviously some weak points in his lower body and with how big he is in his upper body, there's obviously going to be something that has to take the strain.

"It seems like his lower back has been maybe working a little harder than it should have, to compensate for the surgeries he's had in his lower body.

"It's just sort of caught up with him, so I think surgery is a good thing for him and he'll rehab it the right way. He's got the best advice in the world so he will only come back when he's ready to play.

"He'll come back healthy and obviously put the right procedures and structures in place to make sure it doesn't happen again."