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Rory McIlroy's Busy Stretch Begins Now, and It All Leads to the Masters

Rory McIlroy Makes 2016 PGA Tour Debut at Riviera
World No. 3 Rory McIlroy begins his 2016 PGA Tour season by debuting at Riviera, host of the Northern Trust Open.

LOS ANGELES (AP) The road to the Masters starts on the other side of the country for Rory McIlroy.

McIlroy has heard enough of Riviera that he decided to play the Northern Trust Open for the first time, and 27 holes over the last two days have left him convinced that it was a smart move and that it was worth it to add one more event to a busy schedule.

He is playing five of the next six weeks, and every field will be among the strongest in golf for this time of the year.

''I think the Masters at this point of the year is on pretty much everyone's mind,'' McIlroy said Wednesday. ''You're building up to it. You've got some great events between now and then, but obviously I'd love my game to be in peak shape for Augusta in April.''

McIlroy has played twice this year, a tie for third in Abu Dhabi and a tie for sixth in Dubai, and typically waits until the Florida swing to get into gear.

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Instead, he tees it up Thursday off Sunset Boulevard with a field that has five of the top eight in the world, starting with Jordan Spieth at No. 1. The Honda Classic next week in Florida is expected to have a strong field, and then Doral will bring together the top three - Spieth, Jason Day and McIlroy - for the first time since September.

McIlroy also is scheduled to play at Bay Hill and then the Match Play for the top 64 in the world.

''It's going to be a great stretch of golf,'' he said. ''I think the guys that are up at the top of the world rankings now, we like to play quite a bit. ... It's great to be able to play week in and week out against some of the best fields in the world. You want to challenge yourself, and you want to test yourself against the best that's out here.

''I think we'll see that happen here, and then obviously as we move into Florida.''

Even so, Augusta is on his mind.

McIlroy had all the attention on him last year during the weeks leading to the Masters as the undisputed No. 1 player in the world going after a third straight major and a chance to complete the career Grand Slam.

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Now he's one of three battling for No. 1 in the world.

McIlroy slipped back to No. 3 this week behind Day. When he won the Match Play last year, he told about a ritual of going to the Official World Golf Ranking website to see the size of his lead at No. 1. Now, he doesn't look at the ranking as much. He knows he's not No. 1.

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''I will check them. I saw that Jason overtook me last week,'' he said. ''Need a cup of coffee to perk me up after it.''

Given the strength of fields over the coming weeks, McIlroy has a chance to change that.

''It's still a big deal,'' McIlroy said. ''Look, even if you're a player or a fan, anyone wants to know who the best golf is in the world. It's important to me. I'm not really competitive in much other things, but this I'm very competitive and want to try and get back there as fast I can.''

James Hahn won at Riviera last year in a playoff after he, Dustin Johnson and Paul Casey finished at 6-under 278. Only the U.S. Open last year (5 under) had a higher winning score to par.

''It's a real treat when you come to a golf course like this where it's not overly long, you don't have to really bomb it off the tee, but it's real strategic,'' McIlroy said. ''You've got to place your ball on the right sides of the fairways. You have to make sure you hit it to the right side of the greens. You can't really get it above the pin. It's a real thinker's golf course, and it's a real treat to play something like this because we don't get to play them that often anymore.''

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