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Originally published April 9, 2013 at 7:15 PM | Page modified April 9, 2013 at 11:24 PM

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Texas Open runner-up finish has Rory McIlroy optimistic entering Masters | Golf

Second-ranked Rory McIlroy's golf swing, inconsistent for much of this year, seemingly is better — just in time, as the Masters begins Thursday.

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Early in the season, Rory McIlroy feels as if it already has been a long year.

The splashy announcement of his Nike deal, and the commercial with Tiger Woods that raised hopes of a big rivalry. The missed cut in Abu Dhabi. The first-round exit from the Match Play Championship. Quitting halfway through the second round of the Honda Classic. The loss of his No. 1 world ranking.

And now, McIlroy sounds ready to get started.

"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," McIlroy said Tuesday.

It all starts with the first round of the Masters on Thursday.

McIlroy can't simply dismiss the last three months and the endless questions about the state of his game and his new equipment. He at least brings some measure of form to the first major championship of the year. Desperate to find his game, he added the Texas Open to his schedule at the last minute and it turned out "almost perfectly." The 23-year-old from Northern Ireland didn't think about his swing, only his score. He challenged in the final round and wound up the runner-up to Martin Laird.

Whether McIlroy is ready for Augusta National is a mystery.

"I've went through these patches before where I haven't played so well and the game feels quite far away, and then something clicks and then all of a sudden, it's back again," McIlroy said. "I probably should have learned more from it from last summer, when I was going through those struggles. ... When I don't play my best, it's when I get into bad habits in my golf swing. Whenever my golf swing is where I want it to be, that's when I produce results.

"And that's what I've seen has started to happen over the past few weeks."

The problem has been the swing, not the clubs he was swinging, he contends.

Even so, McIlroy conceded the adjustment took time. Woods took nearly five years before working all the Nike clubs into his bag. McIlroy did it all at once.

"There was a little bit of an adjustment period getting the driver that really suited me," McIlroy said.

Top-ranked Woods, 37, has had plenty of rivals over the years, and sees McIlroy as the next one.

McIlroy isn't so sure.

"When you speak of rivals, you tend to put rivals who have had similar success," McIlroy said. "He's got 77 PGA Tour wins. 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."

Notes

Ryan Moore of Puyallup will tee off at 5:44 a.m. PDT Thursday as part of a threesome that also has eight-time major champion Tom Watson and Kevin Streelman.

Seattle native Fred Couples, the 1992 Masters winner, will tee off at 10:08 a.m. PDT, joined by Dustin Johnson and Branden Grace.

Other notables and their Thursday PDT tee times: defending champion Bubba Watson (7:34 a.m.), Woods (7:45 a.m.), Phil Mickelson (10:30 a.m.) and McIlroy (10:41 a.m.).

ESPN coverage begins at noon.

• Bubba Watson said his 1-year-old son, Caleb, will be his caddie for Wednesday's Par 3 Contest. Or maybe it will be the other way around.

"We'll be carrying him," Bubba said. "So I guess we'll be caddying him."

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