- New no.1 Rory McIlroy targets Masters success at Augusta
- McIlroy led last year at Augusta before disastrous final round
- He believes return to form of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson good for the game
- McIlroy defends top ranking at WGC tournament at Doral this week
Fresh from becoming world no.1 for the first time, Rory McIlroy is predicting "exciting times" for golf as the world's top players hit peak form ahead of the Masters at Augusta.
The 22-year-old from Northern Ireland is only too aware that his reign at the top of the rankings could be brief with deposed no.1 Luke Donald and no.3 Lee Westwood both capable of dislodging him after this week's WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral in Florida.
McIlroy will take three weeks off after that tournament to focus on the opening major of the season, desperate to erase the disappointment of last year when he led for 63 holes before imploding on the back nine on the final day.
But he recognizes that he will face a big challenge from a revived Tiger Woods, who pushed him all the way in the Honda Classic with a stunning final round 62 at PGA National, and three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson, who won at Pebble Beach last month.
"I think it's fantastic for the game," McIlroy told gathered reporters after his latest triumph in Florida.
"To see what Phil did at Pebble, to see Tiger playing like he did today.
"Everyone is excited for Augusta and I'm looking forward to getting back there and giving it another shot."
Both Donald, who won the money lists in Europe and the United States last season, and fellow Englishman Westwood, whose brilliant closing 63 at PGA National left him fourth behind McIlroy, will be desperate to win their first major titles next month.
Reigning champion Charl Schwartzel of South Africa is also running into form with a tied fifth finish Sunday.
But according to McIlroy's compatriot Graeme McDowell, they all have work to do to match his stablemate.
"He's the best player I've ever seen tee-to-green, period," McDowell told the official PGA Tour website.
"I didn't have a chance to play with Tiger in the early to mid 2000s when Tiger was the man, but Rory McIlroy is the best."
Former U.S. Open champion McDowell believes McIlroy's improvements on the greens, he holed a series of clutch putts on Sunday, has made the difference.
"As soon as he learned how to putt, he was going to be a dominating force," McDowell said. "You're starting to see that now."
McIlroy flew to New York to see his girlfriend and former tennis no.1 Caroline Wozniacki after his latest win, but when he returns to Florida for this week's tournament on the famous Blue Monster course it will be with a renewed self-belief.
"I always felt like when I played my best, I would be hard to beat," McIlroy said.
"I feel like I've always been a pretty confident guy. But I think I've got a lot more belief in myself now when I'm going down the stretch. I definitely don't doubt myself as much as I used to."
He will be hoping that confidence extends to the Masters where he will look to add to his U.S. Open triumph at Congressional last June.