The golfing narrative has changed a tad since McIlroy dominated the agenda a year ago, seeking to round out his wardrobe with a Green Jacket. Jordan Spieth rewrote that plot, muscling McIlroy out of the headlines by making the Masters his first major, at 21, instead of the Ulsterman's fifth to complete the set.
Spieth's emergence has for McIlroy arguably deepened the pull and the significance of what a maiden victory at Augusta would constitute. The challenge has stiffened as a result of Spieth's extraordinary rise, requiring a response. McIlroy's pre-eminence off the tee is irrelevant when his principal rival peppers the pin from 150 yards and taps in from 20 feet.
So McIlroy has to find an answer. Spieth will not be out on his feet at Augusta having trailed around the golfing hotspots of the world in the preceding weeks.
We saw how their appearance in the same field in Abu Dhabi last week utterly downgraded interest in the PGA Tour's Careerbuilder Challenge at La Quinta, California, which concluded dramatically enough in a play-off won by Jason Dufner. Though neither could ultimately resist the feisty Rickie Fowler in his desert boots, they departed having left a mark of sorts. Spieth ground out a top-five finish despite complaining of fatigue and McIlroy summoned the best of himself over the championship holes, four birdies and an eagle catapulting him into third place.
Spieth moves on to Singapore this week before bringing his mad worldwide schedule to a halt and drawing breath in his new $8m pad in Dallas. McIlroy, on the other hand, is cranking up the output all the way to Augusta, continuing with his defence of the Dubai Desert Classic next week.
Scheduling, as Spieth is discovering, is an art all its own in this game. McIlroy has still to find the perfect balance and this year answers last term's suspicion that he might have been undercooked going into the first major of the season, by adding two tournaments.
“I feel my game is in good shape going into this run of golf that I've got coming up,” he said. “It's a busy schedule that I've got going into the Masters.
“I would have liked to have started the season just that little bit better with a win, but I feel my performance here, I can take plenty away from it and build gradually up towards the first major of the season at Augusta.
“I don't know if I would say that I was under-golfed going into Augusta the last couple of years, but just the way the schedule is, there's a couple more tournaments that I'd like to play. The WGC Match Play is before the Masters again. Last year it was after.
“So a couple of extra tournaments, but I don't mind that. It means I'll be in good form and any sort of rust or anything I need to work on in my game will be hopefully eradicated by that point.”
McIlroy will start his PGA Tour season next month with a debut at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera in California, and will also return to Arnold Palmer's tournament at Bay Hill before the Match Play. Throw in the Honda Classic and it adds up to six events running up to Augusta, giving himself a week at home in Florida before heading across the state line to feast in Georgia.
Original source: McIlroy hopes to benefit from busy schedule