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Len Ziehm On Golf

Rory’s career Grand Slam bid should overshadow Tiger’s return at the Masters

The Masters tournament always offers a variety of pre-tournament story lines, but the 79th version of the year’s first major championship that tees off on Thursday has more than usual.

For one, Tiger Woods is playing again. Beset by back problems, he received a warm welcome when he arrived at Augusta National this week to prepare for his 20th Masters. Whether he’s able to contend for his fifth title is another matter. Woods’ last tournament round was on Feb. 7. He missed last year’s Masters because of his health issues, has played just one full tournament in his last six starts and has played only 47 holes of tournament golf in 2015. A strong showing this week seems unlikely.

There are more appropriate focal points than Woods at this Masters. Bubba Watson is hoping to win his third Masters in four years. Jordan Spieth, just 21 years old, tied for second in last year’s Masters and has a win and two second-place finishes in his last three tournaments. He’s poised to win his first major title.

For nostalgia, there’s two-time champion Ben Crenshaw making his 44th – and he says final – Masters appearance. And there’s Steve Stricker, playing his first tournament of the year after focusing on Wisconsin’s NCAA basketball run the last few weeks. He was on hand for the Badgers’ upset of Kentucky on Saturday in Indianapolis and — somewhat reluctantly — checked in at Augusta National rather than attend Monday’s championship game loss to Duke.

The best story line of the week, though, isn’t any of those. It’s Rory McIlroy, in his bid to complete the career Grand Slam. The 25-year old from Northern Ireland won the U.S. Open in 2011 and the British Open and the PGA Championship last year. All that remains is the Masters.

Only five players have competed the career Grand Slam. Gene Sarazen nabbed his wins in the four majors between 1922 and 1935. Ben Hogan did it between 1946-53, Gary Player from 1959-65, Jack Nicklaus from 1962-66 and Woods from 1997-2000.

McIlroy would be the second-youngest (behind Woods) to complete the career slam if he wins on Sunday. He’d also have won three straight majors. McIlroy, who has competed in the Masters every year since 2009, had a great chance to win in 2011 when he held a four-stroke lead after 54 holes before an 80 in the final round dropped him into a tie for 15th. Last year McIlroy had his best Masters finish so far, a tie for eighth.

Glenview girl wins at Augusta

Effie Perakis, of Glenview, helped get Masters festivities off to a great start when she won the 7-9 year old age division in the Drive, Chip and Putt competition. She was among 10 finalists in her age group that were determined at nation-wide qualifying rounds last year.

The nationally-televised finals were conducted at Augusta National last Sunday. Effie had a drive of 156 yards, put both of her chip shots inside eight feet and holed the first of her two putts.

A joint effort by Augusta National, the PGA of America and the U.S. Golf Assn., the Drive, Chip & Putt event started last year and drew rave reviews. This year Chicago hosts one of the regionals which will send winners to next year’s Masters. Medinah will host it on Sept. 19.

Hall of Fame finalists set

The selection committee for the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame has narrowed the 25 nominees to 10 finalists. They include Jerry Rich, creator of popular tournament site Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove; club professionals Emil Esposito, Leon McNair and Jim Sobb; and long-time tour player Gary Hallberg.

Also in the running are the late Phil Kosin, creator of Chicagoland Golf newspaper, and four who made a variety of contributions in the earlier decades of Chicago golf – H. Chandler Egan, William Langford, Francis Peabody and Harry Radix. The 18-member committee will determine the 2015 inductees in a second voting session on May 13.

Golf Channel picks two IPGA teachers

Todd Sones, of White Deer Run in Vernon Hills, and Kevin Weeks, of Cog Hill in Lemont, are among the first 45 instructors nation-wide named to the Golf Channel Academy. They’re the only two from Illinois in the newly-formed network of instruction facilities.