Graeme McDowell reckons he can contend for Masters glory next week and hopes Ernie Els is also by his side at Augusta National.

The Ulsterman tees it up in the Shell Houston Open hoping to win for the first time since 2010 and head to Georgia with high hopes of making his mark in the first major of the season.

Els also wants to win at Redstone because it would earn him a last minute place in the Masters field. And McDowell believes the Masters Committee would be applauded by the vast majority of players if it issued a special invitation to the Big Easy, who could miss the trip down Magnolia Lane for the first time in 19 years.

The popular South African does not expect a special exemption at this stage and if he fails to qualify, McDowell believes the Masters Tournament will be a poorer event for his absence.

“When a guy like Ernie Els misses a Major, it’s obviously disappointing,” McDowell said in Texas yesterday. “He was one of my heroes in the ’90s when he was winning his U.S. Opens, and he’s a quality player and he’s given it such a great run the last couple weeks.  

“We were talking even a few weeks ago, did he deserve an invitation, special exemption, because I know the committee at Augusta do do that.  

“Ryo Ishikawa had one from outside the world’s Top 50.  The Masters Committee are well within their rights to do so.  I just think a guy like Ernie Els has to be a strong candidate.  

“Surely the green jackets have discussed him at length and decided that for whatever reason, he doesn’t deserve an invitation. But I think if you took a poll among the players as to guys who deserve the invite, he would be top of the list for sure.  Disappointing, obviously a blow to the field.  

“I was going to say let’s hope he wins this week.  I’ll be hoping to compete myself this week (laughter).  Be great the see Ernie Els at Augusta next week.  It’s a strange one, interesting one.”

Runner up at Augusta National in 2000 and 2004, Els had chances to seal his place in the Masters field by playing well enough in the Transitions Championship or last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill to move into the world’s top 50 before last Sunday’s deadline.

His putting let him down on both occasions and he had to settle for a brace of top five finishes in Tampa and Orlando, leaving him ranked 58th in the world and needing to win the Shell Houston Open at Redstone to make it into the first major of the season.

Apparently resigned to his fate, Els does not believe he will receive an invitation at this stage and admits that he only has himself to blame.

He said: “It is an invitational event and they have their reasons to invite somebody or not, and that’s the sad part. I’ll probably miss it for the first time in 18 or 19 years.

“My streak will come to an end, unfortunately. I can’t blame the Masters people for not inviting me. I’ve put myself in this position by not playing very well.”

Winning on demand is one of the toughest tasks in the game and Els has decided to put the Masters out of his mind this week.
“You can’t go into a week putting pressure on yourself to win to get into another week,” Els said. “I just want to have a good week. If I can win, obviously, that would be absolutely wonderful. But my goal here is not to get into the Masters, it’s to play the Shell Houston Open as good as I can.

“If I get into the Masters, that’s great. If I don’t, then I’ve had many Masters that I can look back at, and I’ll get back in there next year.”

McDowell also has high hopes of winning an event he last played in 2006 but remembers well as it was his first professional event as an amateur.

The Ulsterman won the Shell sponsored South of Ireland championship in 2000 and earned a place in the 2001 Shell Houston Open as a reward.

“I was still at college at UAB,” McDowell recalled. “I remember that experience. I missed the cut, obviously.  I was like a fish out of water.  It was my one and only amateur start in a professional event.  One of my first professional events I had ever been to.  That was certainly an eye opener.”

After finishing second to Tiger Woods at Bay Hill, the Ulsterman admits that he has one eye on Augusta National, where he has missed the cut for the past two years.

With a record of three missed cuts and a best finish of tied 17th in four appearances, the 32-year old former US Open champion can understand why he’s considered an outsider for a green jacket.

But he believes that he still has a chance if he plays to his strengths - rapier like iron play and sharpness on and around the greens.

“tt’s not a golf course I play well on historically,” McDowell said. “So I’m going in there very much with an open mind next week.  No one will expect me to play well next week, but I’ll certainly be expecting to compete, you know, if I can chip and putt well.

“I did hit the ball well there, very well last year.  I think I was in the Top-5 in greens in regulation through Friday, but was going home Friday night because I didn’t putt very well.  Like I say, no one will expect me to come compete there next week.  Inside, I know I can.

“The traditional view is that you must draw the ball and hit the ball very long off the tee to play well at Augusta.  Why is Rory McIlroy tailor-made to play Augusta well?  Because he bombs it 320 with a large right to left shape.  I don’t do that.  So theoretically no, I shouldn’t be able to compete at Augusta.  

“[But] you’re only talking three, four tee shots that it helps to do that on.  The rest of the time, it’s about iron play, it’s a second shot golf course, Augusta.  You really got to play with precision iron play.

“So perhaps I’ll have to play with a couple more clubs in my hand than these other guys will, but there’s no reason why my iron play is not on next week like it was last week at Bay Hill that I can’t compete.

“I’ve been talking with my caddy.  We toyed with the idea of putting a Cleveland driver with a little bit more draw bias like Phil did two years ago, two drivers, one went left and one went right.  We toyed with the idea of trying to create a draw bias driver.  There’s no need to do that.  9, 10, 13, that’s really it.  The rest of the time, a straight ball works just fine.”

McDowell will go off with world No 3 Lee Westwood and US PGA champion Keegan Bradley and 1350 (Irish time).

Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington are also in the field and keen to show some consistency in Texas ahead of next week.

The reigning Open champion goes off with Chris Kirk and Charley Hoffman at 1900 (Irish time) with Harrington drawn alongside Sweden’s Henrik Stenson and Bill Lunde at 1910.