McIlroy serene on the cusp of history as Tiger weathers storm
Rory McIlroy readily dismissed a suggestion that the return of Tiger Woods at this week's Masters made the task of completing his Career Grand Slam any easier.
The theory that Tiger would command most of the limelight, almost allowing McIlroy to fly in under the radar at Augusta National, was supported by two dozen vacant seats at the World No 1's pre-tournament media briefing.
It was standing room only for latecomers to Tiger's jam-packed news conference 45 minutes earlier. Naturally, such matters were of little concern to the 25-year-old Holywood native, who seems to have wrapped himself in a comfortable cocoon for the past fortnight to complete his Masters preparations in private.
"It is such a big story, Tiger coming back at the Masters after a bit of a lengthy period where he has not been around," McIlroy conceded. "But still I'm just here to play golf. You guys can write the stories and I won't read them and we'll move on.
"I said this to Michael (Bannon, his coach), JP Fitzgerald (his caddie) and Steve (McGregor, his fitness consultant) last week in Florida 'if Augusta was to start tomorrow, I'd be okay. I'm ready'.
"So I think that's a good indication of where I am with my game. I've been ready for a week already for this thing to start. So I'm just trying to keep my game where it is and to do some quality work, not overdo it."
Since completing his fifth victory in 13 months at January's Dubai Desert Classic, McIlroy's not performed to the same peak he achieved while winning The Open at Hoylake, the Bridgestone WGC at Firestone and the US PGA at Valhalla, a Tigeresque hat-trick if ever there was one.
Yet he insisted he's satisfied with his form entering Masters week. "I came here ready to play and just needed to go see the golf course. I wasn't working on anything in my swing or thinking about technique at all.
"Just all about hitting the shots I need to and thinking about how to manage my game and get it around here for the next four days," McIlroy added.
"I don't feel any less or any more attention because Tiger's here. You know, it's great that he is. It would have been a bad thing for the sport if he had not been able to come back, so I'm happy he's making his first start back here
"And hopefully this is the start of a period where he can play continuously and have a good run at it, because, you know, Tiger's turning 40 this year.
"He's got maybe a few years left where he can play at the top level and he's going to give it his all.
"I'd a good chat with him on the putting green today. He feels good. He's been working hard. He's got the motivation to keep at it, and just like everyone else, I'll be looking for his score and seeing what he's doing."
McIlroy pays no heed to the media but confirmed it's virtually impossible to cut oneself off completely from the inevitable hype and clatter his presence would have stirred at recent tournaments.
"I just really felt like spending a couple of weeks away from this, I guess, and just preparing at home and in private and not really having everything critiqued and analysed and overanalysed,
"So I just wanted to get away from it all, and I feel like it's been a good thing."
Though McIlroy feels he's in a similar place personally as he was last summer, playing the Masters is different, and not just because this is the one event which "gives me butterflies on the first tee on Thursday."
No question, the he faces a special mental challenge at Augusta National, where he's made 77 or worse at least once in each of the last five years.
Yet as he tries to rein in his natural aggression and box more cleverly, especially to improve his scoring on Augusta's par fives, McIlroy feels he's now mentally strong enough for the task.
"Mentally, I feel like I'm in a far better place on the course, and being able to handle adversity whenever it might come my way out there. If I can just play the par fives a little better, hopefully that will help me do better a give me a chance to win," he says, exuding the quiet confidence of a multiple Major-winner.