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.
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.
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.
"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."
So is Spieth, who has his own love affair with Riviera.
Spieth said he was torn between going to college at Texas or USC when he was in high school (he eventually chose Texas), and one of the perks of the Trojans was having a playing membership at Riviera while he was in college.
He played on an exemption as an amateur in 2012 and missed the cut when he missed a 10-foot par putt on the 18th hole. He was three shots behind going into the final round in 2014 until closing with a 71. And a year ago, he made bogey trying to make birdie, and it wound up keeping him out of a playoff.
Throw in the NCAA title that Texas won at Riviera in 2012, and Spieth figures he has played Riviera as much as any PGA Tour course outside the state of Texas.
"It's one of my favorites in the entire world," he said.
McIlroy sounded as though he was ready to join the fan club. James Hahn won 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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