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McIlroy seeks dream ticket to the Masters

Teenager can cap amazing first year as a professional by clinching spot at Augusta

The maths may be complicated but the challenge is ever so simple for Rory McIlroy as he sets out in the heart of the Cape Winelands today trying to become one of the youngest players to qualify for the Masters. The 19-year-old must play decidedly better than he did last week.

While the missed cut at the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek did not begin to remove any of the gloss of the young Ulsterman's incredible finish to 2008 – in which he has become the youngest professional to pass the £1m mark in winnings – it did leave him in a perilous position coming into the South African Open which tees off this morning at Pearl Valley.

At No 50 in the world rankings McIlroy cannot afford another slip up as only the top 50 will earn berths in the Masters in next Monday's end of year cut-off. In fact, only a top-20 finish in the second oldest national Open, which also includes the likes of Ernie Els, Lee Westwood and Justin Rose, would be certain to win him the spot in Georgia.

The rankings are notoriously complex and there are many below McIlroy in the list who could leapfrog him in this the final golfing week of the year, although the main threat clearly comes from the Taiwanese player in 51st place. Lin Wen-teng is just a tenth of a point behind McIlroy and a good showing by the 34-year-old at the Volvo Masters of Asia in Bangkok would see him cruelly deny his young rival.

McIlroy will be particularly wary of Lin's challenge as he lost a play-off to the same golfer at last month's Hong Kong Open. It was the second time in his first campaign as a professional that McIlroy had missed out in sudden death, but that fact hardly marred what was another fantastic week from the teenager whose sweet swing so famously wowed the galleries of the 2007 Open at Carnoustie.

Hong Kong was the sixth tournament out of eight in which he had recorded a top-10 finish, a remarkable performance for such an inexperienced player and one which brought Augusta tantalisingly into focus. He travelled to South Africa last week vowing to secure his berth at the Alfred Dunhill but two rounds of 71 and 72 saw him crash out prematurely. McIlroy then had a nervous wait to see whether he would fall out of the all-important top 50 and had Matthew Goggin won instead of lost a play-off for the Australian Open on Sunday, he would have been playing catch-up in the Cape. As it is, it remains in his hands and yesterday McIlroy was vowing "to play my own game and not worry about the rest".

At 19 years and 11 months, McIlroy would not become the youngest competitor of the modern era to qualify for the Masters – the South Korean amateur Sung Yoon Kim was 17 years, 10 months when he made his debut in 2000 – but as far as the paid ranks are concerned he would be leaving some former European boy wonders in his wake. Seve Ballesteros was a month younger when he first teed it up on Alister MacKenzie's masterpiece in 1977, while Sergio Garcia was four months older when he made his professional bow there in 2000.

While some of the expectations piled on McIlroy when he turned pro 15 months ago were obviously ridiculous, he has all but exceeded the demands he put on himself. In an interview with The Independent in July he said that his goals in 2008 "are to finish in the top 60 of the European Order of Merit and to break into the world's top 100". He dared not whisper about Augusta, then. Now it is just four good rounds away.