PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The stage looks like it’s all Rory McIlroy’s now.
Not just here at the Honda Classic this week, but stretching through the Masters and beyond.
With Tiger Woods out indefinitely trying to repair his broken game, McIlroy makes his first start of the PGA Tour season this week amid a growing sense that his time as the game’s preeminent star is fully arriving.
With uncertainty over Woods' future and whether he’ll ever regain winning form, with Phil Mickelson here but working through his own challenges, McIlroy steps more fully into the leading man’s role. With his world No. 1 ranking and run of terrific form, he’s beginning a run-up to what could be a historic Masters. He’ll be trying to win at Augusta National to join Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen as the only players to complete the career Grand Slam in professional golf.
Is McIlroy ready for all that comes with being the game’s leading man?
“Yes,” McIlroy said. “It's what I've always wanted to do. I would be wasting my time if I was out there practicing as much as I do, and putting as much into it, if I didn't want to be in this position. And wasting the people's time around me, as well, that helped me get to this point.
“Of course I want to be that guy. I said it last year. Golf is waiting for someone like that to step forward, put their hand up and win the big tournaments. Yeah, this is the position I want to be in, and I want to be in it as long as I can.”
McIlroy hasn’t played since he won the Dubai Desert Classic almost a month ago, but he’s on a tear that extends back into last summer, when he won the British Open, WGC-Bridgestone and PGA Championship in consecutive starts. He has a victory and four second-place finishes in his last five starts.
“I played with him in Dubai the first two rounds,” said reigning U.S. Open champ Martin Kaymer. “There’s no weakness. The only one who can beat him, I think, is himself.”
At 25, with four different runs at No. 1 over 69 total weeks, McIlroy appears better equipped to supplant Woods as the game’s top star.
“I feel like I can handle the position I’m in a lot better than I did a couple years ago,” McIlroy said.
Having his legal challenges resolved a few weeks ago, a settlement with his former management company worked out, McIlroy will make his run to the Masters without those distractions threatening to get in the way.
“It’s sort of like a clear road ahead,” McIlroy said. “It’s so nice just to be able to focus on golf and put all my time and effort into that.”
The Honda Classic is a good place for McIlroy to begin preparing for all the hype that will surround his drive down Magnolia Drive this spring. He has a home just down the road in Palm Beach Gardens. He won the Honda Classic three years ago and tied for second in it last year after losing out in a playoff. This is the seventh time he will play the tournament.
“Sort of like a hometown event,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy will play three events leading up to the Masters, heading down I-95 to Doral next week for the WGC-Cadillac Championship and then taking a week off before playing his first Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando.
“I feel like I’ve got a nice schedule going into Augusta,” McIlroy said. “I’m not playing too much, but I’m playing just enough that I should be as sharp as possible going in there.”
Count Gary Player among those expecting McIlroy to complete the career Grand Slam.
“The Masters is just made for him,” Player said. “There is no golf course I can think of that is made for him more than Augusta National.”
Victorious European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley also sees the green jacket being a good fit for McIlroy.
“I’d be very surprised if at the end of his career he hasn’t won more than one Masters green jacket,” McGinley said.
With the Masters six weeks away, McIlroy is in full prep mode to try to win his first.