McIlroy has never successfully defended a title in his professional career and was famously prevented from even attempting to do so in last year’s Open and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational after suffering a serious ankle injury while playing football.
The world number three has made no secret that he wants a victory before attempting to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods in completing the career grand slam at the Masters.
And the 26-year-old feels his excellent match play record gives him a great chance of following the likes of Bubba Watson, Adam Scott, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, and Charl Schwartzel into the winner’s circle in 2016 in his final competitive outing before heading to Augusta in a fortnight’s time.
“It is important,” McIlroy told a press conference after being drawn to face Kevin Na, Smylie Kaufman and Thorbjorn Olesen in the group stages at Austin Country Club. “I’ve been saying all along since the start of the year I’d love to win before Augusta and this is my last chance to do that.”
McIlroy completed a disappointing week in style with a closing 65 in the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday and is relishing a rare match play event following his hard-fought success in San Francisco last year.
The four-time major winner was two down after 16 holes in his final group match with Billy Horschel before winning on the second extra hole, while he needed 22 holes to get the better of Paul Casey in their quarter-final.
“This tournament has gone through a few different venues (but) it doesn’t change the fact that it is match play and you have to beat the person that’s there in front of you,” added McIlroy, who has won 24 of his 32 singles contests in various match play events.
“I feel like that has been the best approach for me in match play — the golf course is almost irrelevant, in a way. It’s about playing the player that’s in front of you there on the first tee.
“It’s a sprint. It’s 18 holes. You don’t really have time to find your rhythm. You need to try to make birdies from the get-go. And that’s the approach I’ve adopted the last few years. And I feel like my match play record for the most part speaks for itself. I’ve had a pretty good record since I’ve turned pro in this tournament and in the Ryder Cup as well.”
Group matches will be played today, tomorrow and Friday and the winner of each group advances to the last 16 on Saturday morning, with the quarter-finals on Saturday afternoon. The semi-finals will be held on Sunday morning with the final and consolation match later the same day.
McIlroy, who will face Olesen today, is seeded to meet Bay Hill winner Jason Day in the semi-finals and cannot face Jordan Spieth until the final. Spieth faces Jamie Donaldson in his opener.
Other opening day fixtures include Sergio Garcia taking on Lee Westwood, Rickie Fowler against Jason Dufner, Jason Day against Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry facing Martin Kaymer.