Rory McIlroy flying under the radar in quest to break Masters duck
Rory McIlroy summed it up perfectly when he said he felt less "exposed" at this year's Masters than he did in 2015, when his quest for the career grand slam and the return of Tiger Woods dominated the build-up.
Twelve months on, McIlroy is making his second attempt to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods in winning all four major titles, while Woods remains sidelined following three back operations in the space of 19 months.
But while the 14-time major winner was far from ignored during the pre-tournament press conferences - "I don't think he's done," Nicklaus continued to insist - there were plenty of other storylines to distract attention from McIlroy.
Defending champion Jordan Spieth is looking to become only the fourth player after Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Woods to successfully defend the green jacket following his record-breaking performance last year.
And new world number one Jason Day can make it three tournament wins - and two majors - in succession after his triumph in the US PGA Championship last season and victories in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and WGC-Dell Match Play last month.
Former Masters champions Adam Scott, Bubba Watson and Charl Schwartzel have all won on the PGA Tour in 2016, while Rickie Fowler's victory in Abu Dhabi in January means McIlroy is the only member of the world's top five without a win this year.
"My game feels good," insisted McIlroy, who took three days off last week following his semi-final defeat in defence of his Match Play title before getting down to work with coach Michael Bannon at home in Florida.
"It's all about going out there over the next four days and executing the shots the way I need to and being mentally strong. But I feel good. I probably feel a little bit more subdued going in this time because I haven't had the win this year, but I feel like my game is right there."
McIlroy may be the last man out in the opening round on Thursday, but has stressed the need to make a fast start, with opening rounds of 71 last year leaving him an incredible 12 shots behind Spieth.
The 26-year-old moved through the field with scores of 68 and 66 to finish fourth and secure his highest Masters finish, the previous best of eighth in 2014 coming after the embarrassment of being outscored by his marker, Augusta member Jeff Knox, in the third round.
McIlroy believes he will "definitely" win the Masters at one stage in his career, but concedes there is no time like the present given the increasing competition and has adopted a new approach which includes laying up on the par-five second.
Louis Oosthuizen famously made an albatross there in the final round in 2012, but McIlroy said: " Over the years I've tried to hit that second green in two my success rate isn't very high. So if the pin is on the left I'll miss the green right and try to get up and down for birdie, and if the pin is on the left I'll do the opposite.
"Apart from that, I feel like I've got a good game plan for this golf course. The par fives are very, very important. If you can play those well and play the other holes conservatively and smartly and take your pars and a birdie or two comes up from them, that's great."
Whether McIlroy wins or not, statistics suggest the cream will again rise to the top on Sunday evening.
Since Darren Clarke and Keegan Bradley won the last two majors of 2011 when 111th and 108th in the world respectively, the lowest ranked winner of a major has been Ernie Els, who was 40th when he won the 2012 Open at Lytham.
The statistics do not favour a European winner however, with Jose Maria Olazabal the last to don the famous green jacket in 1999 after a period of dominance which saw eight wins between 1988 and 1999 and seven out of nine from Sandy Lyle's triumph in 1988 to Nick Faldo's third title in 1996.
"It's not as if we haven't had our share of world-class golfers," Ryder Cup captain Clarke said. " Why they haven't succeeded here, I have no idea.
"Rory should feature every year. His game is made for this course. And look at Justin Rose. His Masters record is sensational. But, on the other hand, this is the place where Sergio [Garcia] thinks he can never win."
Former champion Tom Watson, who is making his final Masters appearance this week, believes McIlroy certainly can win, especially if confronted by a sterner test than 12 months ago.
" He's my pick this week," Watson said. " Rory can emasculate a golf course. He hits the ball high and so far. And I can tell you the golf course is different this year than it was last year. The greens are faster... on T uesday they had a real sheen to them."