Rory a Masters champion in waiting - Watson

When an eight-time major winner like Tom Watson tips a player to win the Masters, you know he’s got good reason.

But it remains to be seen if 2010 will be the year that Rory McIlroy fulfills the predictions and slips his young frame into a green jacket.

Having played nine holes with McIlroy on Monday, Watson was left in no doubt about McIlroy’s Augusta credentials.

“He’s looking good. He’s driving the ball well and he’s hitting a lot of good shots,” Watson said after a nine hole spin with McIlroy and the 16-year old Italian amateur Matteo Manassero. “Rory’s got the game. He can win at Augusta.”

McIlroy’s form this year does not inspire confidence but Augusta has transformed him and he is a different player from the kid who followed lacklustre finishes in the Honda Classic and the CA Championship with a ragged missed cut in Houston last week.

The world No 11 - an impressive 20th on his debut here last year - has spent long hours in conclave with the respected mental coach Dr Bob Rotella and having confessed to feeling unhappy on the course for most of this year, he sounded like a changed man as he drank in the heady Augusta atmosphere.

So special is the ambience at the Cathedral of Pines that McIlroy feels like a kid in a sweetshop. This is “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” with a golfing spin.

In fact, McIlroy is so focussed on putting in a top performance that he confessed that he almost felt guilty that he didn’t pick Watson’s brain as they practiced together earlier this week.

“I was  just going about my business and he was going about his,” McIlroy said. “I thought I should stop and realise that I was playing with a legend, but I suppose it is the Masters and I want to do well. So I am trying to focus this week and concentrate  on my own game. 

“It is the sort of week when you should sit back and take it all in because it is such a different atmosphere and they run it so well. It is my favourite golf event of the year.”

It’s no wonder. Having escaped disqualification on Friday, when he was questioned by the committee over a potential infraction in a greenside bunker at the 18th, he finished in style by storming home in a sensational, five under par 31 on Sunday afternoon.

It appears that the bigger the challenge, the more McIlroy rises to the occasion and he’s hoping that he can feed off those feelings again this week.

“I feel very comfortable on the golf course,” McIlroy said. “I feel it is a golf course I can do well on. I have got most of the shots - all of the shots - to hopefully do well round here. It is just a matter of getting the speed of the greens and getting your feel and once you do that you are off and running. 

“No one knows what it is like until they get in the gates and I think that whole aura and mystique about it is still very appealing to me.

“Is it like Charlie and the Chocolate factory? Yeah. That’s what it’s like. To be honest with you. I feel more comfortable in the bigger tournaments. I struggle to get myself up for other events but I feel I can really concentrate and get myself into these events a little easier than a Houston Open or a Honda classic. 

“I feel as if on tougher tracks with better fields I can do better. I suppose I am wanting to do well in the majors and it’s obviously the ultimate goal of any golfer.”

McIlroy has been troubled by a bone stress injury for most of the year but that’s healing slowly and he reckons he’s hitting the ball as well as he has at any stage in his career.

He said: “I didn’t play badly last week in Houston but I didn’t score very well and didn’t make enough birdies. I did a lot of good work in Houston on Friday afternoon and on  Saturday and got here on Sunday. 

“I am hitting the ball probably the best I have hit it all year. I am hitting it as well as I was in the middle of last year when I felt that I was hitting it as well as I ever did. 

“Missing the cut there could be a blessing in disguise.  I have done a lot of good work with Michael Bannon. The way I am hitting my golf shots now and the way I am seeing them is hopefully starting to pay off.”