AUGUSTA, GA. - He's 5-9 and 160 pounds of poodle hair and apple cheeks. He ambled around Augusta National during his practice round like he was stuck behind a slow group at his local muni, hitting extra balls, zigzagging across fairways to chat with friends, grinning when he stuck his 7-iron at the intimidating 16th within a few feet of the wind-blown flag.

Rory McIlroy, the 19-year-old from Northern Ireland, might be golf's Next Big Thing.

In the age of Tiger Woods and weight training, who knew the Next Big Thing would arrive with a haircut that would make Carrot Top blush and a body that would look just about right busing tables at the Waffle House down the street from Augusta National?

The hair is the first thing you notice. As he played his practice round, one fan at the 17th green whispered to another, "That's Rory. Not Sabatini -- McIlroy. Sabatini's hair is tight.''

McIlroy's hair is not. It billows from below his cap like smoke under the door of a burning house. It strays. Meanders. Mushrooms.

"It's starting to annoy me a little bit,'' McIlroy said. "It's getting a little much.''

Will he cut it before he wins a major? "Not sure,'' he said. "Maybe. Depends how fast I win a major.''

McIlroy, ranked 17th in the world, will play in his first Masters this week. If a 19-year-old could ever be considered a contender, McIlroy would be the one. He finished second at the Omega European Masters last year, and won in Dubai this year.

Mark O'Meara, Tiger's buddy and former mentor, says McIlroy is better than Tiger at 19. Ernie Els predicted McIlroy will succeed Tiger as the world's best player. Geoff Ogilvy called McIlroy the best youngster he's ever played with.

McIlroy, with his lilting accent and unwavering calm, accepts the praise with a mixture of charm and confidence. Gary Player, after announcing that this will be the last Masters in which he plays, said McIlroy could become the youngest ever to win all of the majors. Player did it at 29, Jack Nicklaus did it at 26 and Woods did it when he was 24.

"Is that one a year?'' McIlroy said. "I don't know. Maybe. I'd have to play extremely well. But obviously it's not out of the realm of possibility.''

Monday, McIlroy played his practice round with Mike Weir. Had you not known better, you would have thought that McIlroy was the former Masters champ and Weir was the 19-year-old.

McIlroy bombed his drives. While the lengthening of the course has led to most players laying up on par-5s, McIlroy, playing into the wind on the 15th hole, hit a fairway wood to the back of the green on his second shot.

"Mike's game and my game are completely different,'' McIlroy said. "He can plot his way around the golf course, where I would just try and hit it as far down there as possible.''

At 17, McIlroy shot a 68 in the first round of the 2007 British Open, at devilish Carnoustie. Less than two years later, Woods admitted he sees a bit of himself in McIlroy, even if Woods is the prototype of the modern, focused, chiseled athlete, and McIlroy looks like he just got kicked out of a boy band.

"Certainly, he has the talent,'' Woods said. "We can all see it. The way he hits the golf ball, the way he putts, the way he can chip, get up-and-down. He has the composure. He has all of the components to be the best player in the world, there's no doubt.''

Padraig Harrington, an Irishman who has won the past two majors, admitted Tuesday that he was overwhelmed when he first played Augusta National. McIlroy said he didn't feel the flutter of a single butterfly.

"I thought I would be nervous hitting my first shot here,'' McIlroy said. "But, you know, maybe if I was a little younger, or maybe if I played here as amateur, it would have been a little different."

If he were any younger, he'd be an embryo. An embryo with a great swing, and fabulous hair.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. •