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By Larry Fine
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Golf fans have drooled in anticipation of a one-two rivalry between Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, but the mop-topped Northern Irishman said on Tuesday that talk was premature.
"I don't see myself a rival to Tiger or to anyone," McIlroy said on Tuesday before a practice round at Augusta National ahead of Thursday's opening round of the Masters.
McIlroy, proclaiming himself 100 percent comfortable with his golf swing and new clubs, could overtake a resurgent Woods and reclaim the world number one ranking at the Masters, but the 23-year-old Northern Irishman reminded everyone he is still early on his golf journey.
"When you speak of rivals, you tend to put rivals who have had similar success," said McIlroy. "He's got 77 PGA Tour events. I've got six. He's got 14 majors. I've got two.
"If I saw myself a rival to Tiger, I wouldn't really be doing him much justice."
However, McIlroy made it plain he was eager to work on bridging the numbers gap starting this week at the first major championship of the year.
"Every time you come here to Augusta, you're wanting to win that green jacket, and every time you don't it's another chance missed," said McIlroy, who admitted that anything less than a win would be a disappointment.
McIlroy started the year with an equipment change, a struggle to find his swing and a roundly criticised walk-off the course in frustration at the Honda Classic.
Determined to turn his season around in time for the Masters, McIlroy made a difficult decision to cancel a scheduled philanthropic trip to Haiti in order to work on his game at last week's Texas Open and suddenly it all came together for him.
A final-round 66 and a second place finish in San Antonio bolstered his confidence coming into the Masters.
"It was tough, because golf sometimes is a selfish sport and sometimes you have to do what's right for yourself," McIlroy said about bowing out of a scheduled two-day trip to Haiti in his role as a UNICEF ambassador.
"I knew I was letting a lot of people down with my decision to go to San Antonio ... I made a couple of tough phone calls. But I felt like it was the best way for me to prepare for this week."
McIlroy came away from San Antonio satisfied he was ready to challenge now at his "favourite tournament of the year."
"I'm very comfortable and I'm 100 percent there," proclaimed McIlroy about getting used to his new clubs. "I feel like they are a part of me now and that's the way a golf club should be."
Having ascended to the top of the game at such a young age, McIlroy has done some of his growing up on public display.
More of his blossoming maturity was in evidence when he spoke about a tactical change he planned for this Masters.
"I'm probably going to adopt a little different strategy off the tee this year than the previous years, try to hit it into the fat parts of the fairway," said McIlroy. "Because I'm confident with my iron play, there's no point in taking on too much off the tee.
"There's generous fairways out there. You hit into the fat parts and you're always going to give yourself a good chance to get it close to the pin."
McIlroy said that did not mean he would not go full throttle when need be.
"Of course you still have to be aggressive around this golf course, but I think there's times where you have to put it in play, put it in the middle of the fairway, and instead of trying to give yourself an eight- or nine-iron into the green, know that you're going to have just as good of a chance hitting a six- or seven-iron."
McIlroy yearns for another chance as good as he had at the 2011 Masters, when he carried a four-stroke lead into the final round before soaring to an 80 finish to tie for 15th.
"I had a chance to win in 2011 and obviously that didn't go too well, but it still doesn't change the fact that it's my favourite golf tournament," he said. "Growing up watching this on TV ... it's a place that's very special to me.
"I don't know if I can explain it. Every time you drive in the gates here is a big thrill.
The season starts now, as far as McIlroy is concerned.
"I've always said the main golf season is from the start of April to the end of August, so that's when I want to play my best golf," he added, describing the span of months that comprise golf's four majors.
But first will come some fun, and McIlroy said he plans to share the thrill with his girlfriend, former world women's tennis number one Caroline Wozniacki, who will caddy for him at Wednesday's Par-3 contest.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)