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Add 'ruthlessness on the course' to Rory McIlroy's repertoire

Rory McIlroy makes his Northern Trust Open debut Thursday playing alongside Matt Kuchar and Hideki Matsuyama. Warren Little/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES -- This is an important year for Rory McIlroy. It's an important year simply because when you're one of the world's most talented golfers and in the prime of your career, they're all important years.

There's another reason this is an important year, though. Make that three. Their names are Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler. Those are the logical candidates to block McIlroy from a fifth major championship and beyond, although the reality is that there are a few dozen players beyond the so-called Big Four who could provide a similar barricade.

As McIlroy prepares to embark on his United States debut at this week's Northern Trust Open, the narrative has changed mightily from the beginning of 2015. At that point, he was in possession of the previous two major titles, ranked No. 1 in the world and the man to beat anytime he teed it up -- not just one of the men to beat.

While it might appear that some of the luster has worn off McIlroy's star since this time a year ago, it's really just a matter of him sharing that top billing these days. To the more obtuse observers, it might seem as if he hasn't won a major in quite a long time. That's only true if you consider 18 months to be a long time. And it's less true if you realize he's only 0-for-3 during that period, the result of missing the latest Open Championship due to an injury incurred while playing soccer.

All of which sounds like it has only made him hungrier for more success.

Following his first 18-hole round here at Riviera Country Club -- he'd never played this course before, even outside of competition -- McIlroy was asked about the impending road to Augusta, where he'll try to complete the career grand slam, and how he perceived his competition.

The question that really produced the greatest insight into why he might surpass those other challengers revolved around his competitive desires.

"There's a transitional period from a teenager getting out on tour to your early-20s and you're still sort of discovering yourself and sort of knowing who you are and what you are," he explained. "I think somewhere in that time period, I learned that it's OK to be a winner. It's OK to be selfish at times. It's OK to do these things. That's the reason that we work hard is to try and win these tournaments."

He didn't stop there.

"Sometimes I still get those feelings of -- I don't want to say I have guilt, but sometimes I feel like I haven't had to work as hard to get to where I am as some other people. I don't know if that's guilt or if that's questioning, 'Why is that me? Why am I the one that feels this way?' But I feel now that I definitely have got a ruthlessness on the course that I maybe didn't have a few years ago."

In the demure world of golf, that's as boastful as a player will ever get. It doesn't quite qualify as trash-talking, but it should send a warning flare to his fellow competitors.

Think about it: If McIlroy won four majors before he turned 26 without a certain ruthlessness that he feels he now owns, shouldn't that equate to even more victories with a renewed attitude?

It's almost as if being on top of the golf world and falling from that pole position -- even just slightly -- has afforded him a unique perspective on why it happens and just how tough it is to maintain such a distance from everyone else.

"Especially [in] this day and age, where the margins are so small, and it's become increasingly more difficult to separate yourself from your peers with technology, with guys getting better, coaching getting better, the knowledge that's out there, the way they set the golf courses up these days," said McIlroy, who already owns finishes of third place and sixth place on the European Tour this year. "It's becoming increasingly difficult to separate yourself, and I think that's why you see so many players have a chance to win."

He keenly understands this. He understands that the competition is continuously improving, so he must keep improving right along with them.

There's something else McIlroy understands, too.

This all makes for an important year for him. Of course, when you're this good and in the prime of your career, they're all important years.