With Woods stalled at 14 majors, McIlroy is seen as the most likely to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships entering the Masters, which begins Thursday.

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Imagine the buzz for June’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay if Rory McIlroy were to win the green jacket this weekend at the Masters.

He would have become the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam (wins at the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship) and would be attempting to become the reigning champion of all four majors (called a Tiger Slam after Tiger Woods accomplished the feat in 2000-01).

Despite all that is at stake for the world’s top-ranked player, who begins his quest Thursday at 7:41 a.m. Pacific time, his story has almost been an afterthought.


That’s what happens when Woods decides to play after taking a break. Not that McIlroy, 25, is too concerned.

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“A little bit, I guess,” McIlroy said when asked if Woods being most of the focus might be good for him. “But still, I’m here just to play golf, and you guys can write the stories, and I won’t read them, and we’ll move on.”

The stories quickly would shift to McIlroy if he gets off to a good start and Woods struggles. And that easily could happen. McIlroy was the 5-1 favorite in the Glantz-Culver odds, and defending champion Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth are the co-second choices at 10-1.

McIlroy’s best finish here is a tie for eighth last season, but in 2011 he led by three shots entering the final round before fading to 15th with an 80 on Sunday. But McIlroy, from Northern Ireland, followed that disappointment with an eight-shot win at the U.S. Open two months later.

He said the Masters is the one tournament for which he still gets nervous before hitting his first shot, but he also said he is in a better position to handle the pressure.

“I think I am better equipped now to handle it if things don’t go quite the right way,” he said. “Mentally I feel like I’m in a far better place on the golf course, and being able to handle adversity whenever it might come.”

There has not been a lot of adversity for McIlroy. He dominated in the U.S. and in Europe last year and has four major titles. With Woods stalled at 14 majors, McIlroy is seen as the most likely to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships. But McIlroy will not think ahead.

Players to watch

Rory McIlroy: Winner of the past two majors, and he is unquestionably the player to beat.

Tiger Woods: How will he do? Who knows, but it will be great theater whatever the outcome.

Bubba Watson: Defending champion can make it three titles in past four years.

Jordan Spieth: Just 21, he was second last year and is playing as well as anyone.

Fred Couples/Ryan Moore: Seattle native Couples loves it here. Puyallup’s Moore ready to contend.

Scott Hanson

“I don’t have a target,” he said. “I’m just looking for my fifth. And hopefully when I get my fifth, I’ll look for my sixth. At the end of my career, I’ll add it up and see where it leaves me, and that’s the way I am going to approach it.”

Woods, who completed his career grand slam in 2000 at age 24, sounds as if he doesn’t expect McIlroy will have to wait long to complete his. “He has that opportunity (this week), and he’s going to have that opportunity for decades to come,” Woods said. “But I’m sure he’ll have many green jackets in his closet before it’s all said and done.”

The course seems to set up well for McIlroy, who can take advantage of being one of the longer hitters in golf.

“If you’re looking at the (majors) courses, it’s the one that should set up best for me, just with my ball flight and being comfortable off the tee here, especially being able to turn the ball over from right to left,” he said.

McIlroy started slowly this spring after taking a winter break and missed the cut in his first event back, in early March at the Honda Classic. He was tied for ninth and 11th in his next two events before taking the past two weeks off to work alone at his home in Florida. He said his game is in good shape, which could be trouble for the rest of the field.

“With the type of length and ball-striking he has and putting touch, I think this is a course he’ll be tough at the rest of his career,” three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson said. “I’m sure he’ll win, whether it’s this week or not. You always need a little bit of a break to win a tournament. Maybe he gets it this week, maybe he doesn’t. But over the course of 15, 20 years, he’ll get those breaks and he’ll win the Masters.”

And if it’s this week, he’ll also be the story at the U.S. Open, no matter who else is in the field.