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Saturday, 15 December, 2018

Refreshed Rory McIlroy can take the States by storm

Busy schedule should deliver the dollar

Rory McIlroy could have plenty to smile about in 2018
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Palmer's top tip
Rory McIlroy 14-1
Justin Thomas won the US Money List last season with a shade under $10m, having started the year as a 33-1 chance, and the buzzing Kentucky boy has already put himself at the top of the standings for 2018.

Victory in the CJ Cup at the end of October got Thomas off the mark for the new campaign and the 24-year-old is favourite for the Stateside cash race with most layers. Can he repeat the trick and bank the most dollar again?

Five wins, including a first Major triumph, were enough for Thomas to edge Jordan Spieth in the money list. There is no reason why the USPGA champion should fail to achieve a similar level of success this season, but preference is for bigger prices about two players who are as good as Thomas, if not better.

Jon Rahm has been recommended for the Race to Dubai and could easily have a say in the US Money List too but Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler appeal as slightly better options than the brilliant Spaniard.

McIlroy, FedEx Cup champion in 2016, has loaded his early Stateside schedule in a bid to be at the peak of his powers for the Masters. The Green Jacket, and the resultant career Grand Slam of Majors, is his obsession and a busy build-up to the first Major of the season is the tactic which will be employed.

McIlroy is bound to reap the rewards of ending his 2017 campaign on October 8, the start of a long break which is set to end on January 18 at the Abu Dhabi Championship. He has had a chance to clear his head, adjust to married life, reach maximum fitness, and make firm decisions regarding his equipment for the year ahead.

Last season was ruined by injuries, club switches and wedding distractions, with his mood dipping further with each winless month. It was his first year since 2008 without a victory and he split with long-time caddie JP Fitzgerald in the summer. Despite two runner-up spots – the SA Open and the British Masters – 2017 was a write-off.

McIlroy needed to hit the reset button. There was too much technical clutter in his brain for much of last term, particularly with putting. His long game remains arguably the best in the business, so there is not much that needs work. His short-irons and wedges must sharpen up, and that is about it. McIlroy just needs to accept he is always going to be a streaky putter and relax on the greens. On the weeks when he putts well, he has an excellent chance of lifting a trophy.

The caddie situation is not ideal as McIlroy has said his friend Harry Diamond will continue as bagman for the foreseeable future. A more professional and polished sidekick would probably help, but having a pal on the bag is the latest trend on tour, with Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton and others enjoying success after recruiting a mate. McIlroy, a single-minded operator who has always wanted things his own way on and off the course, is clearly happy to take total control of his destiny from here.

After Abu Dhabi and the Dubai Desert Classic, McIlroy should shoot up the US Money List. He has already listed the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the Genesis Open, the Honda Classic, the Valspar Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational on his schedule. That will make it five US Tour outings before the Masters, with the possibility of adding the WGC-Mexico Championship and the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.

All four of the Majors are possible victories. Power is of great advantage in the three US Majors, while McIlroy has more experience than most of playing Carnoustie (the Open venue this season) from the 2007 Open and seven Dunhill Links appearances.

Next best
Rickie Fowler 14-1
McIlroy would definitely consider himself better than money-list favourite Thomas, but Rickie Fowler may not be so bold. A lack of self-belief, an inferiority complex bolstered by infrequent victories and no Major title, has handicapped Fowler. However, there is a good chance that all that changes in the year to come.

Technically, Fowler is close to being the best player in the world. Statistically, his game stands up against anyone else, and he is without weakness. Only mental hurdles still need to be jumped, and his awesome final round in the Hero World Challenge last time out should help massively in that regard.

Fowler made eight birdies in a spectacular front-nine 28 on his way to a final-round 61, overtaking a bewildered Charley Hoffman to triumph by four shots. All of the elite were thrashed by Fowler in the Hero and he must realise that it is only a matter of time before trophies, including the Majors, start flowing at pace on to his mantelpiece.

Fowler's rivals have been made fully aware that he possesses a lethal finishing kick. He has produced two of the most remarkable late surges in the history of golf (in the 2015 Players Championship and the 2017 World Challenge) and he can be expected to contend in every Major. The 2015 Scottish Open champion should be one of the most dangerous Americans at Carnoustie.

Others to note
Dustin Johnson is likely to be among the Money List leaders by the end of the year, but his price is nothing special, while the same can be said of Brooks Koepka.

Sergio Garcia could sneak a place at giant odds, given that he has some form in the book at this season's Major venues, losing a playoff for the 2007 Open at Carnoustie. With a baby due in March, though, a light schedule seems likely.

Staking plan
R McIlroy
3pts each-way 14-1 bet365
R Fowler
2pts each-way 14-1 Coral, Ladbrokes, Sky Bet

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McIlroy, a single-minded operator who always wants things his own way on and off the course, is clearly happy to take total control of his destiny
E.W. Terms
Sky bet