"The way I was hitting the ball at the start of the year, I needed a short game just to get myself around the golf course," McIlroy said. "Off the tee has been a big improvement. There was a little bit of an adjustment period getting the driver that really suited me. And once I got that, you gain confidence whenever you play rounds and you see yourself hitting good drives, hitting it in the fairway and setting yourself up with iron shots into the greens."
McIlroy has plenty at stake this year.
He already has two legs of the career Grand Slam, having set the scoring record at the U.S. Open when he won at Congressional in 2011, and then lapping the field at Kiawah Island last summer to win the PGA Championship. A win this year would put him exclusive company. Dating to 1960, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are the only players to win majors in three straight seasons.
Boy Wonder would love for that to happen at the Masters, and he's provided enough evidence that it could happen. McIlroy smiled when he was introduced for his news conference, and the moderator mentioned his best finish was a tie for 15th. That was in 2011, the year he took a four-shot lead into the final round, and still was leading by one shot going to the back nine until his game imploded. He closed with an 80.
A year ago, he was one off the lead going into the weekend, and this time self-destructed on the front nine. He closed with 77-76 and tied for 40th.
But there is no denying the affection McIlroy has for the Masters, which he calls his favorite major. He remembers playing Augusta for the first, so inspired by the purity of the place that he was afraid to take a divot.
Just a month ago, he was happy to make the cut and make progress. Now his goals are back where they should be.
"Would anything less than a win be a disappointment this week? Yeah, it would be," he said. "Every time you come here to Augusta, you're wanting to win that green jacket, and every time that you don't, it's another chance missed. But if I'm sitting here on Sunday night and I've finished second or if I've give it a good run, you can't be too disappointed because you've had a great tournament. But the ultimate goal is getting one of those jackets."
Among those who could be in his way is Woods, the prohibitive favorite with wins at Torrey Pines, Doral and Bay Hill in the last few months.
There was hope of a rivalry between generations, only that hasn't materialized.
Woods has had plenty of rivals over the years, and sees McIlroy as the next one.
"Over the course of my career, I've had a few. Certainly, Rory is this generation," Woods said. "I've had Phil (Mickelson) and Vijay (Singh) and Ernie (Els) and David (Duval) for a number of years, and now Rory's the leader of this new, younger generation. So, yes, definitely."
McIlroy isn't so sure.
Never mind that he became the first player to win consecutive PGA Tour events with Woods in the field, or that he built a big gap in the world ranking by the end of last year.