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NI stars aim to master Augusta

Stephen Watson | 12:02 UK time, Monday, 2 April 2012

When I drove down the famous Magnolia Lane for the first time three years ago, I was left completely speechless.

It was a journey I never thought I would have the privilege of making.

My sporting dream had always been to see the holy grail of golf first hand, and to report from the most exclusive tournament in the world, which I had watched religiously on television year after year.

Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke

Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke are out for more major glory when they play at the 2012 US Masters

I will never forget that magical moment in 2009, the same year Rory McIlroy made his Masters debut, but to be returning to the iconic venue this year feels even more special.

The reason? Because Northern Ireland, is the talk of Augusta.

We have three major winners, two of them current champions, all trying to become the first Irishman to slip on a Green Jacket.

Add three time Major winner Padraig Harrington to Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and McIlroy, and this really could be another huge week for Irish golf.

Rory is naturally the favourite to make the Masters breakthrough. His odds have tumbled since his win at the Honda Classic and his rise to World number one.

He has since slipped to number two and that is probably no bad thing. It deflects a little of the limelight away from the 22-year-old, as does Tiger Woods' return to winning ways.

Last year Rory proved he's got the natural game to win at Augusta National. Yes, he blew his four-shot lead on the final day in the most dramatic fashions, hitting his ball into the trees, into the creek, and even beside a log cabin.

But before that he played some majestic golf and could have been so far in front he was uncatchable.

And he's back with a massive point to prove. The last time that happened he strolled to the US Open title in record breaking style.

There's no doubt consistency and putting will be key to Rory's success, and his coach Michael Bannon told me recently his young prodigy has made massive improvements in these parts of his game.

So how will Rory handle that now well documented Masters meltdown? With ease in my opinion.

That is why I had a little flutter the week straight after last year's event and backed our Holywood star at 16-1 (he's now 11-2 second favourite). Rory's redemption this week would be one of the greatest golfing stories of them all.

From a Northern Ireland perspective, most of the focus may be on Rory , but I have a feeling it be could be Graeme's turn to challenge for another major.

He may have missed the Masters halfway cut on the last two occasions, but recently the Portrush man has shown a real return to his US Open winning form of 2010.

G-Mac's big strength is his putting. By his own high standards he will have been disappointed with his form on the greens on Sunday in Houston, and not to have taken his chances when be finished runner up to Tiger two weeks ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but there's no better man to sink a putt on the big occasion.

The Augusta greens are the fastest and most difficult in the world. I can vouch for that after getting the opportunity to play the course a few years ago! If Graeme gets his short game firing I believe he will be in the mix this week.

And of course don't rule out Darren. The last time I almost forgot about him he only went on to win the Open. He still banters me about it every time I see him! It's fantastic to see Darren return to Augusta once again, especially with the claret jug in his luggage.

He has been at the top of the leaderboard at the Masters before, and I just hope he recovers from injury in time to take his place in the field to fly the flag for Northern Ireland - the new golfing capital of the world.


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