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Friday, 19 March 2010
Abu Dhabi Golf Championship Pro Am  (Getty Images)
Abu Dhabi Golf Championship Pro Am (Getty Images)

The waiting is over. Seven months after winning a second successive Major Championship and his third in total, Ireland’s Padraig Harrington will drive up Magnolia Lane this week for the Masters Tournament with the opportunity to make European golfing history.

Harrington is one of a record 50 European Tour Members invited to the first Major of 2009, a cast that, of course, includes defending Champion Trevor Immelman of South Africa and Northern Irish teenager Rory McIlroy, one of eight European Tour debutants experiencing the special magic of Augusta National for the first time.

However, it is fair to say that most eyes will be on Harrington, who has been waiting for this moment ever since his stunning Open Championship and US PGA Championship double success last summer. Now he stands in line to become the first European golfer to win three consecutive Majors, a feat only achieved in history by the current World Number One Tiger Woods and the legendary Ben Hogan before him.

Looking ahead to the week, the 37 year old Dubliner said: "It is going to come down to me managing my expectations. In the past I never believed the expectations people had for me and my way of managing that was to underplay them. Yet when you become a Major Champion you put yourself under pressure to play to a higher standard.”

One man who could not have managed himself any better last year was Immelman, the dogged South African standing tall in the face of a final day challenge from Woods to get his hands on the coveted Green Jacket. Every single one of the European Tour Members in action will hope to emulate Immelman’s feat, with many coming into the week with superb credentials and in top form.

Heading the latter category is Paul Casey who fine-tuned his preparations to perfection with victory in last week’s Shell Houston Open on the US PGA Tour, the 31 year old Englishman’s first triumph in the United States.

Casey has finished in the top 11 at Augusta National on three of his previous four outings, little wonder then, that the nine time European Tour winner has pinpointed the annual April trip to Georgia as his best chance of entering the arena of Major Championship winners.

However, other European Tour Members will return to Augusta with a similar air of confidence after superb showings last year, especially Miguel Angel Jiménez, Robert Karlsson and Andres Romero who all finished in a share of eighth place 12 months ago.

The Masters Tournament also, of course, offers huge prize money on The Race to Dubai with everyone in the current top five keen for another good week to maintain their lofty positions.

Current Number One Geoff Ogilvy showed his game is in tip-top condition with a top six finish behind Casey in Houston, while fifth placed Sergio Garcia will be keen to go one better than in the last Major played, where he finished second to Harrington after a thrilling tussle in the US PGA Championship at Oakland Hills.

Finally, of course, there is a certain Eldrick Tiger Woods to consider. Despite being out of action for over eight months following knee surgery, the World Number One showed he was back with a bang with a sensational victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill a week ago. Currently with 14 Major Championships to his name, Woods has Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 – as well as Georgia –on his mind this week.

As always, given the magnitude of the tournament, there are many big story lines to focus on. Aside from the ones mentioned above, there is also Greg Norman's return after seven years to the tournament that has given him so much heartache, and there are the debuts of three teenagers – 19 year old McIlroy, New Zealand's 18 year old US Amateur champion Danny Lee, both of whom have won on The European Tour International Schedule this year, and 17 year old Japanese sensation Ryo Ishikawa.

Much has been made of McIlroy in the build-up to the tournament – hastened by his fine victory in the Dubai Desert Classic – and indeed there has been talk in certain quarters of him becoming the first player since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 to win on his debut.

That would be a tall order indeed but one thing is for certain, McIlroy has longed to play in the Masters Tournament ever since he became aware of it.

The first Augusta tournament he remembers - aged six at the time –was in 1996 when Greg Norman's and Nick Faldo's delivered one of the most riveting denouements in the history of professional golf.

Twelve months later, his interest in the game growing by the day, McIlroy was glued to his television as his hero Tiger Woods, in the first Major he played as a professional, stormed to a record 12 shot win.

For decades to come those two Masters will always be recalled - and now, at the tender age of 19, McIlroy is about to become part of the tournament's history as well.

Climbing into the world's top 50 by the end of last year to guarantee himself an invitation was a feat in itself, but it is the way he started this year that has really thrust the Northern Ireland youngster into the limelight.

Winning his first European Tour title against a star-studded field in Dubai catapulted him into the game's top 20 and it came with a comment from former Masters and Open Champion Mark O'Meara that his ball-striking was ahead of Woods at the same age.

Such praise heaps expectations on McIlroy's shoulders, but he appears to have taken it in his stride and at Augusta National he knows he is in the perfect "nothing to lose, everything to gain" position.

"I'm just going to treat it as a normal event," McIlroy said, fully aware that come the week that is far easier said than done. "I'll try not to be too overawed by the occasion or the place. If I play the way I can then hopefully I can have a good finish. I've got to go there expecting to play well."

Amazingly he is only the third-youngest player in the field. New Zealander Danny Lee, 18, qualified as the youngest-ever US Amateur champion, while 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa, Japan's new star, received a special invitation and becomes the second-youngest participant in Masters history.

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