Rory in line for Mexican return as battle hots up
Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama - a group of the world's top golfers who collectively can be likened to a pack of hungry sharks out in the deep ocean stalking their prey.
Their appetite for carrying off the big prizes has been whetted by the post-Christmas roster of tournaments they have played to date.
Matsuyama (three) and now Spieth have chewed up the opposition - without sating their hunger for victory.
Day remains world No 1, and Johnson is edging closer to a win with every passing tournament.
Back in the shallows, Rory McIlroy can do little more than wade in up to his ankles and wait and watch, and scan the horizon with mixed feelings of anxiety and anticipation.
Time is short. Augusta is on the mind of anyone who is anyone in the world of golf, and an optimal state of readiness is required of would-be Masters champions.
McIlroy's recovery from a rib stress fracture continues steadily but it just cannot be forced. This week he is on schedule to start hitting wedge shots.
His physical training and medical advisors require the four-time Major champion to gradually increase the amount, and they want variety in his practice.
Pushing through the pain is not an option if he is to have any chance of regaining full fitness.
The WGC-Mexico Championship from March 2-5 remains the target for a return to tournament action.
Four rounds with no cut in Mexico presents McIlroy with an ideal platform on which to base a comeback.
Meanwhile, the other big boys are sharpening their game mentally and physically, and pushing ahead with their build-up for April 6-9 in Georgia.
McIlroy has been watching the action from afar, and seeing Spieth take a six-shot lead into the final round of the AT&T Pro Am at Pebble Beach and win by four has him yearning to be back out there in the heat of battle.
Spieth shot a bogey-free 70 to seal the deal at Pebble in his 100th PGA Tour event to secure his ninth victory - two of which were Major championships, the 2015 Masters and US Open.
The 23-year-old Texan has finished second ten times, and has 44 top-10 finishes.
The latest victory was welcome and deserved, but Spieth highlighted something that could seriously affect McIlroy's chances at Augusta: the importance of coping with the challenges and stress of contending.
"Very valuable. Even though I finished third, third, ninth the last few, I didn't have a chance to win them, they were coming from behind," he explained.
"This time, to be tied for the lead through two rounds and go out and shoot the round we did while feeling kind of the Saturday moving day pressure of extending a lead, was really special. I can draw a lot off of that. Certainly, as we go into Riviera, and then move closer to the Masters and the Texas events, I'm going to be looking to get into contention again.
"The more times you can do it, the easier, the more natural it feels."
Spieth even apologised for turning Sunday into a procession.
"Boring golf," he said with a smile after totalling 33 putts on Sunday compared to 23 the previous day.
"I apologise but that was kind of the game plan. That's what was needed today and fortunately that's what we did to close it out."
Shane Lowry rose two places to 51st in the world rankings courtesy of his tied-14th finish on seven-under par.
Seamus Power banked another cheque towards retaining his card in his rookie season on the PGA Tour, closing with 71 for tied-39th, which earned him $26,640.
That brought Power to $201,963 for his nine tournaments to date, a run in which he made seven cuts.
Padraig Harrington missed his third successive cut at Pebble Beach, and is still troubled by a persistent neck injury.
Harrington arranged to see a doctor yesterday to help him decide if he plays at Riviera this week.