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McIlroy emerges from the elite as the Masters man to beat

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Regardless of how Rory McIlroy fares in the match-play bracket later this month, there is only one bit of cautionary advice that he should heed as the focus begins to drift north from TPC Sawgrass to Augusta National.

Don’t take the stairs.

It was two years ago that Dustin Johnson rattled off three straight springtime victories and headed down Magnolia Lane as the consensus Masters favorite. He left Augusta without hitting a competitive shot, his bid for a green jacket derailed by a pair of socks, wood floors and the laws of friction – all things you’d never expect to come into play 24 hours before a major.

And while Johnson is still the world’s top-ranked player, and Brooks Koepka can stare at multiple major trophies on his shelf anytime he pleases, there now exists an incontrovertible fact in the wake of McIlroy’s torrid stretch that he capped Sunday with a one-shot win at The Players Championship.

When it comes to discussing Masters favorites, there’s Rory and then there’s everyone else.

McIlroy’s performance on the Stadium Course was a timely one, as he did just enough to edge Jim Furyk and outlast the strongest field of the year. But it also validated the upbeat and optimistic demeanor he showcased over the past few weeks, preaching continued patience in the face of Sunday fades and near-misses that had begun to blur together.

There’s no more talk of patience after his performance at Sawgrass, one that ended a year-long victory drought and left only Johnson, Koepka and Justin Rose ahead of him in the world rankings. It also trimmed his Masters betting odds at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook from 12/1 to 8/1, supplanting Johnson as the clear betting favorite.

Noise cancellation: With patience, perspective, McIlroy a Players champ

There were plenty of doubters as Rory McIlroy failed to win event after event. But McIlroy tuned out the negativity, following a positive path to becoming a Players champion.

The run with which McIlroy has opened the new year – six finishes of T-6 or better in six starts – is another reminder of just how high his ceiling can reach when his game falls into place. After all, this is a guy who rattled off five worldwide wins in 2012 and bagged a pair of majors two years later. But this is his biggest victory since leaving Hoylake with the claret jug nearly five years ago, and it’s one that has roots in a total transformation for McIlroy as he approaches his 30th birthday. During his news conference he playfully recalled his Players debut in 2009, one that ended with a missed cut and failed attempts to sneak into nearby bars at age 19.

There were more recent days, he admitted, where his mood hung on the scorecard total: shooting a 65 would make him happy, while a 75 would make him sad. But recently married and with a decade of professional golf in the rear-view mirror, McIlroy has actively worked on separating the player from the person. In so doing, he has found peace off the course that has translated into success on it.

“I don’t know if I like the word confidence. I like, just, I’m comfortable. I’m comfortable with where everything is,” McIlroy said. “I think this is the best start to a year I’ve probably made, and I think I’m on a really good path and I just want to keep going. I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m confident in the path I’m on.”

That path will lead down Magnolia Lane in less than a month, a rocky road fraught with obstacles for McIlroy in years past. That includes his painful collapse in 2011 as well as 2015, when he came to Augusta National on the heels of a pair of major wins and as the No. 1-ranked player in the world, only to get smoked by Jordan Spieth and finish fourth.

That was the first of four unsuccessful attempts to round out the elusive final leg of the career Grand Slam. McIlroy will face the same music every spring until he adds a green jacket to his wardrobe, but his play this year has only ratcheted up the scrutiny heading his way in a few weeks. It has also distanced him even further from the other names on the short list of likely contenders.

“At the start of the season when I was looking at his setup just on TV, he just looked a lot more relaxed,” said Jason Day, who played the final round with McIlroy at TPC Sawgrass. “You could tell that he was, just his demeanor was, it was a lot different compared to last year, and it was just a matter of time. It was going to happen.”

McIlroy did his best to skirt the topic of Masters prospects in his news conference Sunday night, opting to focus on the trophy sitting next to him rather than the only one still missing from his resumé. But the revamped Tour schedule means there are only 24 days until the opening tee shots cut through the towering Georgia pines, with McIlroy and many other stars making their final start before Augusta at next week’s WGC-Dell Match Play Championship.

Consider this hypothetical in golf’s version of Let’s Make a Deal: Would you take a Players title if it meant guaranteeing that you wouldn’t contend in any of the four majors that year? A huge swath of Tour players would agree to those terms, a testament to the prestige of a Players win and what it can do to shape a career.

But McIlroy is assuredly a member of the minority who would balk, imbued with enough confidence to want to give it a shot in the majors and see what his talents can produce. And there’s no tournament he wants more than the Masters, a title he’s well aware would elevate him from a generational great into the pantheon of golf’s legendary figures overnight.

As the results started to pile up this spring, it became increasingly clear that McIlroy would be among the top players to watch next month. But his game has yet to show a crack, and with a final-round performance that finally netted some hardware he has rid himself of the lone potential weakness that seemed to dog either his play or his psyche.

“I feel like I’ve managed the first six weeks, or six tournaments of the year, very well, even with some noise around me, whether it is, ‘He can’t close,’ ‘He can’t play on Sundays,’ blah, blah, blah,” McIlroy said. “If I go and concentrate on me, control what I can do, good golf and good attitude takes care of the rest.”

It means that regardless of how he fares in his remaining start, and regardless of who wins in Tampa or Austin, we’ll be talking about McIlroy as the rightful favorite when the calendar flips to April and the azaleas begin to bloom.

That is, as long as he opts for a one-story rental house during Masters week.

“I’ve just got to do my thing,” he said. “If I go to Augusta with a similar golf game to what I have now, and the attitude I’ve shown over the first few weeks of the year, I think I’ll have a great chance.”