Rory McIlroy believes secret to Masters cheer is successfully handling pressure
The first major championship of the year is never short of drama, but w ith more ingredients than usual in the pot, there is a palpable sense that the 80th Masters is poised to cook up something special.
For starters, US PGA champion Jason Day is guaranteed to arrive at Augusta as the world number one following back-to-back victories in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the WGC-Dell Match Play.
And the man he replaced at the top of the world rankings, Jordan Spieth, just happens to be the defending champion seeking to become the first player to win consecutive green jackets since Tiger Woods in 2002.
Speaking of Woods, the 14-time major winner is set to miss the Masters for just the second time in his career as he recovers from his latest back operation, with no timetable set for his return despite encouraging news in response to rumours about a setback.
Then there is the small matter of Rory McIlroy attempting to win the Masters to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods in completing the career grand slam.
McIlroy is the only member of the world's top six who has not won a tournament in 2016 and changed his putting technique at the end of February in response to a missed cut in the Honda Classic.
That looked like paying instant dividends until a closing 74 saw him lose a three-shot lead in the final round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship, while an erratic week littered with six double bogeys ended on a high with a 64 at Bay Hill.
McIlroy was unable to defend his WGC-Dell Match Play title after losing to Day in the semi-finals, but while frustrated at not going a win under his belt, the 26-year-old knows his performance at Augusta will depend largely on how he deals with the hype surrounding his grand slam quest.
"It's always going to be there until I get to put a green jacket on my back. Last year was my first of having to deal with that pressure and I feel I'm better equipped now," McIlroy told Press Association Sport. "I've got a little bit of experience in how to deal with it and approach it.
"In 2015 it was a good thing that Tiger was coming back because I felt like it took a little bit of pressure off me. But there are other storylines in golf, so maybe not all the attention will be focused on me going into Augusta. Jordan is obviously defending and there are so many other guys that have a chance going in there. I think it will be a little different this year for sure.
" The thing I have to remember is you've beaten all these guys before and if you simplify it, that's what you're trying to do. You're trying to play the best out of the 100 players or whatever it is that week, instead of thinking about what this could mean. That's not the way you should approach the tournament at all.
"I felt especially for the first couple of majors last year I maybe put a bit too much pressure on myself, expectations were very high. I just need to not think about the consequences so much."
Whether that is possible if McIlroy gets into contention remains to be seen, but his 12-under-par total 12 months ago has only been bettered four times since 2000 - Spieth's total of 18 under equalled the tournament record set by Woods in 1997.
"It really does bode well," McIlroy said. "If I could have tied together the way I played the par threes and fours from 2014 with the way I played the par fives in 2015, it would have been a different story.
"I took advantage of the holes I needed to, didn't quite do enough over the other holes, but it was my best ever finish at Augusta, the best I'd ever played so it's getting closer.
" Hopefully Jordan or someone else doesn't have quite the year that they had last year. Twelve under is sometimes good enough to win at Augusta so I'm getting closer, I'm figuring out how to play it and if I can just do the same this year and do a few other things slightly better, you never know."
Spieth began the year looking capable of repeating last year's heroics, shooing 30 under par to win the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, but also shot 79 in the Northern Trust Open and admitted it might be a good thing to lose his world number one ranking after defeat to Louis Oosthuizen in the last 16 in Austin.
But if Spieth is off form, the same cannot be said of the man who dethroned him, a man who has already finished second and third in the Masters.
"It's one tournament that I've always wanted to win," said Day, who plans to arrive in Augusta a week before the tournament starts. "The motivation and the want is there.
"I can't get comfortable with how I'm playing right now, and I can't get lazy, because I've got to understand that what I'm doing is working.
"I've got to keep working on the things that caused me to win over the last two weeks and keep doing that and then stay focused and hopefully put on the green jacket."
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