The Masters 2014: No more toothaches for smitten Rory McIlroy

The Northern Irishman is heading back towards the standards set two years ago

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The Independent Online

Only 43 days now until Jack and Arnie hit the ceremonials at Augusta to get the first major of the year under way. The Masters is like Christmas, the fulcrum of the golfing calendar requiring a countdown all its own.

Occupying a key stepping stone in the build-up to Augusta is this week's Honda Classic, which kick starts the Florida swing. Since most of the players live in the Palm Beach area and surrounding neighbourhoods they can pretty much walk to work, or at the least sleep in their own beds.

One of whom is Rory McIlroy, who infamously walked home early last year, halfway through his second round citing toothache. And this after being pictured taking a chunk out of an outsized sandwich. "I made a mistake walking off the course and disappointed not just myself. Golf can be a frustrating game and emotionally tough. What's important, though, is that I've learned from that episode. I need to stay patient and play my way through the difficult patches.

"I had to mature, and I did. And through the lean times it was important to remind myself that it was my love of golf that secured my position as No 1 in the world. That passion for the game is something I'm really enjoying again."

McIlroy was knee deep in trouble on and off the course 12 months ago. He has since resolved the form crisis but not the turmoil surrounding his business affairs. The split with management company Horizon necessitated a return to court in Dublin on Monday to determine the extent of document disclosure ahead of a full hearing at the Commercial Court in the autumn.

McIlroy is on management company No 3, albeit his own on this occasion. "Management teams often have to consider other players in their camp when decisions are being made, and I think I outgrew that. I won't pretend everything in the future will be smooth sailing because obstacles will always present themselves and there will be highs and lows. Now that the decisions rest with me, though, I'll have to take the poor ones on the chin."

At least that process has had not impacted on his game, which is heading back towards the standards set two years ago. His victory here at the PGA National took him to the world No 1 ranking for the first time.

"It is one of my favourite events of the year and winning in 2012 was an important landmark in my career. Having a place in Palm Beach now also gives the tournament a kind of special feeling, nearly like a home event."

McIlroy is paired with Masters champion Adam Scott, who is making his first appearance of the year on the PGA Tour after a six-week break, and Billy Horschel, with whom he once did heated battle in the 2007 Walker Cup.

The contrast in mood to 2013 is obvious. McIlroy has stabilised impressively, posting five top-10s in his last five strokeplay events, including victory by a shot at the Australian Open, pipping Scott at the 72nd hole in Sydney last December.

Tiger Woods returns after a three-week break looking to put behind him a slow start to the year. Woods also took six weeks off over Christmas and has yet to tap into the form that saw him win the player of the year award in 2013 after five PGA tour victories.

Woods failed to make the final cut at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines and finished 41st at the Dubai Desert Classic, but claims he is making progress. "My golf feels it's finally coming back," he said.