HUMBLE, Texas – Once the frost thawed, Rory McIlroy was back at work Wednesday morning trying to find a swing he could trust and repeat.
McIlroy hasn't looked anything like the No. 1 player in golf this year, and now he's not. That spot belongs to Tiger Woods again after winning for the third time in two months to establish himself as the favorite going into the Masters.
None of this bothers McIlroy.
He is more concerned with the path of his swing than the mathematical average of his ranking. He wants to win whenever he plays, though there is pragmatic side to the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland. He still hasn't made the cut against a full field this year.
That makes the Houston Open more than just a final tuneup for the first major of the year. It's a place to measure progress.
"I want to get back to getting into contention in tournaments and trying to win," McIlroy said. "I think this is a good week to try and get into contention, have a chance with the Masters coming up. I'm just really focused on this week in Houston and trying to play well here."
McIlroy is part of a strong field at the Houston Open, where the tournament tries to give players a taste of what they might see in two weeks. The greens are fast and pure, with several closely mown collection areas that allow for a variety of shots around the green.
The Houston Open thought it was getting the No. 1 player in the world when McIlroy signed up to play Redstone Golf Club in January. It still has five of the top 10 players, including Steve Stricker, Brandt Snedeker, Louis Oosthuizen and Steve Stricker.
And it has Phil Mickelson, who likes Houston so much that he would rather be here than his usual schedule of playing the week before the Masters. Because the Masters is a week later than usual based on the calendar — it always ends on the second Sunday of April — the Texas Open was given the spot a week before Augusta.
That change worked out well for McIlroy, who wants to be in Augusta the weekend before the Masters.
"I thought it fit in really nicely," McIlroy said.
Far more important is what follows over the next few days. Under more scrutiny than he had ever faced — a new place in the game, a new equipment deal with Nike — McIlroy tripped badly coming out of the blocks. He missed the cut in Abu Dhabi. He lost in the first round of the Match Play Championship. Frustration boiled over to the point that he walked out in the second round of the Honda Classic.
Optimism came from Doral, a World Golf Championship event with no cut. McIlroy not only broke par for the first time all year, he closed with a 65 to crack the top 10. And then he took off for two more weeks, spending part of that time with tennis girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki in Key Biscayne, Fla., and hitting balls at a public course in Miami.
McIlroy was spotted hitting balls with a carry bag (decked out in Manchester United logos) next to other paying customers at Miami Municipal Golf Course. It was rare to see a player with McIlroy's credentials — still No. 1 in the world with two major championships — in such a public setting.
He didn't understand all the fuss. McIlroy still sees himself as normal.
And in his normal world, he is bound to hit the kind of rough patches he is going through now. And he looked like a regular guy Wednesday morning, sitting in a booth inside the caddie trailer having breakfast with his coach and his caddie, watching sports on TV, perfectly content with his world.
"We go through highs and lows. It's just sport and that's golf," McIlroy said Tuesday during his press conference. "You're going to have patches where you play great and have patches where you struggle a little bit. I guess you've just got to take the rough ... be patient and know that you're working on right things."
This should be a good week to figure out where he is.
Success at the Houston Open when it was the week before the Masters didn't guarantee a big week at Augusta.
Hunter Mahan, the defending champion at Redstone, tied for 12th last year. Mickelson made 18 birdies on the weekend at Houston in 2011 and followed with his worst Masters finish in 14 years. Anthony Kim won Houston and tied for third at the Masters, helped by a 65 on the last day, though he never had a serious chance to win. Paul Casey won in 2009 and didn't break par at Augusta until the final round.
For McIlroy, it's all about taking baby steps closer to where he knows he can be.
Even though he hasn't won a green jacket, Augusta National is McIlroy's kind of place. It wasn't an accident that he had a four-shot lead going into the final round in 2011. And last year, he was one shot out of the lead until he crashed on the weekend.
And while he hasn't played in two weeks, he had least has some positive memories from his most recent round.
"The things that I'm trying to work on are definitely becoming a lot more comfortable," McIlroy said. "I've seen enough good signs. The weekend at Doral was great and the way I've been hitting the ball recently. I've just got to keep working on it and keep working on it and ... I definitely feel like it's going in the right direction."