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Jordan Spieth sets sights on Rory McIlroy’s world No 1 ranking after dramatic victory at Valspar Championship

As part of this run he also shot a closing 63 to win the Australian Open in Sydney, in a performance that even attracted McIlroy’s admiration. “You could give me another 100 rounds at the Australian and I still wouldn’t sniff 63,” he said. “Very impressive.”

Spieth, up to sixth in the world rankings following his latest triumph, said: “I like to study the game, to be a historian of the game, and it’s really cool to have my name alongside Tiger and Sergio, but Rory’s the one everyone is trying to chase. The ultimate goal is to be the best in the world, and this is a great stepping stone.”

Bubba Watson won the Masters, but not not until a late charge saw him overhaul Spieth

Given Spieth finished tied for second at last year’s Masters, leading at one stage before succumbing to a Bubba Watson bombardment, he brings a fascinating extra dimension to next month’s event. The insouciance with which he sank the decisive putt to beat Sean O’Hair and Patrick Reed, his Ryder Cup partner and kindred spirit among America’s gun-slingers aged under 25, was striking. “It was just luck,” he said, modestly. “If it hadn’t hit the hole, I would have had a four-foot slider, but I guess it was my day.”

He heads to Augusta amid rising anticipation that it can be his day again, but will expect McIlroy to provide a fierce adversary. It is the view of Paul McGinley that Woods could improve McIlroy’s chances of completing the career grand slam there by committing to play.

While Woods is desperately trying to remedy his dismal form ready for Augusta, his very presence would, McGinley argued, divert pressure from McIlroy as he seeks to become only the sixth golfer ever to win all four majors.

“Look what happened at the USPGA last year,” Europe’s winning Ryder Cup captain said of McIlroy’s most recent major victory at Valhalla. “At the time Rory was favourite, but all the expectation and talk was around Tiger: was he going to play or not? Rory didn’t sneak in the back door, but he was able to go about his business without the attention on him.”

Spieth is already eying Rory McIlroy’s world No 1 spot Photo: REUTERS

The chances of Woods competing, let alone contending for a fifth Masters Green Jacket, look precarious after he pulled out of this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, which he has won eight times.

McGinley admitted that he was shocked by the degree of the 14-time major champion’s decline, after Woods shot a career-worst 82 in Phoenix in January. “Is there a little bit of burnout going on?” he asked. “The intensity that Tiger has given to the game for 21 years does have an effect on you. There is a reason why guys don’t play their best golf in their late thirties or their forties. My hunch would be there is something bigger going on.

“There is no doubt Tiger has peaked, in age terms. That doesn’t mean he’s finished, but he is certainly, to use Rory’s wording, in the back nine of his career. And once you get in that back nine of your career, it’s not just the wear and tear on your mind and body – having performed at a very high level, with the scrutiny that Tiger has had for 20 years – but other, mitigating circumstances.”

McGinley, who will be at the Masters commentating for Sky Sports, the only place to watch all four days live, said of Woods: “He has two kids who are growing up and he is spending more time with them. He is in a new relationship, he has got new business interests, and he is designing golf courses, which he never did before. Tiger’s evolution has moved on, and maybe that is one of the reasons why his focus is not there any more.”

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