McIlroy got his first look at Augusta National in a year after playing practice rounds on Monday and Tuesday on the famed Georgia golfing gem.
And it came as no surprise to him on Tuesday to learn Woods had withdrawn from the season’s opening Major Championship: “Hearing Tiger had pulled out did not come as a shock,” said McIlroy on the eve of today’s Shell Houston Open.
“He’s been struggling since the back end of last year and really I didn’t expect him to play the Masters, but I was surprised to see that he needed to have an operation. But at the end of the day his health is much more important, he has to sort that out.
“Look, it’s a shame for him, a shame for the Masters and a shame for golf. But the Masters will still be the Masters, even though he won’t be there.” McIlroy was asked if there was any positives to Woods not being present and in his boyish manner he responded: “I don’t have to beat him.”
And McIlroy accepted he now heads to Augusta next week as the favourite.
“I consider myself as one of the favourites,” he said.
“But then there are a lot of guys that play well at Augusta that seem to sort of show up every year. But then I also feel good about my game and my chances.”
However with many observers questioning whether Woods will ever get near Jack Nicklaus’ all-time Majors record along with the likes of Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and even Pádraig Harrington now well into their 40s, McIlroy says he and the likes of Australia’s Adam Scott need to now grasp the opportunities.
“The Masters is not just wide open now that Tiger’s not playing, but most tournaments are wide open and you only have to look at the winners on Tour the last few months,” he said.
“It’s been a different guy every week and it’s almost like golf is waiting for something to stamp their authority on the game and be that dominantplayer.
“We’ve seen players in the past like Tiger and Vijay to a certain point in the middle 2000s win nine, ten times a year. We haven’t seen that since as it’s so much harder to win out here.
“So a few guys like Adam and myself need to put their hands up and try and be the dominant player in the game because that’s what people want to see, and it’s great for the sport to have people up there week in, week out that win tournaments, and then that creates rivalries, and we haven’t seen that in golf for a couple of years.
“And personally it would be nice to see someone to break away and dominate the game.
“Of course, I hope it’s me (laughing) but as golf fan myself the opportunity at the minute to do this is wide open.”
The double Major winner is returning to competition for the first time since ending T25th early last month in the WGC- Cadillac Championship.
McIlroy said: “My coach Michael Bannon and my fitness trainer Steve McGregor were over last week, and we’ve had some really good hard sessions, doing all our final prep work for the Masters.”
“So I feel good and excited that the majors are about to begin again. It feels like a long time since the last one but I feel like I’m in great shape going into them this time.”
McIlroy will tee up over the opening two rounds of the $6.2m Shell Houston Open in the company of the Dustin Johnson and Luke Donald teeing up at 12.40pm (local time – 6.40pm Irish).
Joining McIlroy in the Houston field will be fellow Irishman Darren Clarke, competing alongside Tommy Gainey and former Masters champion Mike Weir (1pm local time – 7pm Irish).
And Pádraig Harrington will join Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa and Belgium’s Nicloas Colsaerts teeing up at 7.40am (1.40pm Irish) and with all three needing to win this week to secure the last remaining Masters invitation.