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McIlroy taking Masters prep seriously

Former No. 1's last-ditch effort leads to Texas

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SAN ANTONIO -- Rory McIlroy's last-minute, last-ditch effort to right his game in time for the Masters next week has taken a trip to a usually out-of-the-way spot on the PGA Tour. McIlroy and three other highly ranked players in the Official World Golf Rankings start play in the Valero Texas Open on Thursday at TPC San Antonio.

"It obviously was a last-minute decision to come and play here in San Antonio," McIlroy said after his pro-am round Wednesday was washed out by rainstorms on his 13th hole. "But from what I see I like it. It should be a good week, a week where I can try to get my game sharp going to Augusta."

Big-name players don't often seek the Greg Norman-designed Oaks Course at TPC to sharpen their games.

Last year, only two members of golf's top 50 (no one in the top 15) played on a course that ended with the highest-overall scoring average on tour except the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course. In addition to McIlroy, top-15 ranked players Matt Kuchar (ninth), Ian Poulter (12th) and Charl Schwartz (15th) are teeing it up. Ben Curtis, the 2003 British Open winner, is the defending champ.

Yet McIlroy's play since he won the PGA Championship by a record eight-shot margin in August has dropped him a spot, from No. 1 to 2, while Tiger Woods went back to the top after three wins.

McIlroy started the year swinging the same brand of clubs as Woods, but not the same game. He missed a cut at Abu Dhabi, walked off the course as defending champ at Honda and got beat in opening-round play at the World Match Play in Arizona.

"I don't care if I miss 10 cuts in a row -- if I win a major," McIlroy said. "I don't care. I mean, that's what it's all about, winning the big tournaments."

McIlroy comes to San Antonio for the first time, and he's off his second made cut of the year, a 45th-place finish at the Shell Houston Open. Though notables like Woods and Phil Mickelson aren't attracted to the TPC course as a Masters prep, other players who have come here share McIlroy's view of getting in one more competitive event and dismiss his recent skid.

"All Rory has to worry about is peaking the right weeks," said Padraig Harrington, also in the Texas field. "His game is plenty good enough that when he does peak, he can lap fields."

In addition to the hardscrabble layout Norman crafted in the beginnings of the Texas Hill Country, the weather plays havoc on the event. Last year, Matt Every shot an opening-round 63, a course record, in rather benign conditions. The next day he teed it up with a wind that suddenly howled at 30 m.p.h. in places and he shot 74.

Winds could reach 25 m.p.h. during today's opening round.

McIlroy got in a full practice round on Tuesday before getting washed out on the back nine Wednesday.

Though Mickelson was critical of the tour last week for stopping at the TPC course the week before the Masters, Poulter recently decided it was a good move for him to play.

"Phil's mentioned that it's the wrong thing for him to do, to come to a course like this to play golf, but I disagree," Poulter said. "I'm happy to stand on that tee next Thursday (at Augusta National), and I've got to hit it 10 yards left of that bunker, I'm fine with that. I can pick up on that pretty quick."

The TPC course had four greens altered and two fairways widened before this year's event. Yet some places remain unchanged, like the tree-choked right side of the par-4 9th where Kevin Na drove his tee shot two years ago and finally emerged with a score of 16. He's not here this year.

"And you don't want to hit it in the greenside bunkers here because you're unlikely to get a decent stance and lie," Harrington said.

"That's very unpopular among us professional golfers because we like to have nice lies and we like to have everything perfect."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2013 D6

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