Rory McIlroy is a Masters contender again, says David Howell
Last Updated: 14/02/14 2:00pm
McIlroy: Returned to form in Texas
David Howell says Rory McIlroy will head to Augusta believing he can win the Masters after his impressive return to form at the Valero Texas Open.
Although the former world number one was unable to prevent surprise winner Martin Laird lifting the trophy in San Antonio, Howell reckons McIlroy will be heartened by his final round 66, which left him second on the leader board.
"He wants to go to the Masters feeling he's got a chance to win and he can do that now."
And the Englishman, a four-time winner on the European Tour, believes McIlroy can now put a frustrating start to the season - which has been dogged by poor form and question marks over the 23-year-old's big-money switch to Nike clubs - behind him and focus on challenging for the first major of the year.
"This is perfect timing from McIlroy," Howell told Sky Sports.
"He wants to go to the Masters feeling he's got a chance to win and he can do that now. Even Rory, if he was honest with himself, may not have felt he was playing well enough before this week. But Martin Laird proved you can do anything in one week of golf and Rory will certainly feel positive about his chances going there now.
"All the negative talk has been put by the wayside now, the change to Nike, everything. It's back to normal service now: can Rory win the Masters? Can Tiger win the Masters?
"That's what Rory wanted to take out of this week and he's done it nicely."
Denis Pugh was equally impressed with McIlroy's comeback and says having the Northern Irishman back in contention will add even more excitement to the Augusta showpiece.
"We've got exactly what the golf game wanted: Tiger going to Augusta in top form, Rory in top form and plenty of other people, such as Dustin Johnson, who are running into form at the right time," he said.
"We've used this event to whet our appetite for Augusta. It has been a good event on its own - but Augusta is going to be fantastic. It's setting up and bubbling up to be a great week of golfing entertainment."
Meanwhile, Howell also had words of praise for Laird who booked a place at the Masters with his victory. The Scot, like McIlroy, had endured a tough start to this year's campaign and even dropped out of the world's top 100.
However, despite starting Sunday five shots behind overnight leader Billy Horschel, Laird birdied four of the first six holes, as well as the final three, and his bogey-free round earned him his first success since the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2011.
"Golf is a maddening game," said Howell. "Laird played poorly last Thursday, worked hard on the range, found something, took that onto the course on Friday, hit the ball better and went with that this week.
"What was so impressive was how aggressive he stayed on Sunday and how he finished the round so strong. He got off to a flyer of a start and finished with three birdies when it really mattered. The changes he made really stood up to the pressure and that's what he'll be most proud of.
"He'll be delighted to be at the Masters, as well. He'll want to play well and he has the confidence only a win can bring. Who knows, maybe he'll play well next week as well!"