HUMBLE, Texas -- Rory McIlroy might not win the Shell Houston Open this week, but he desperately needs to play 72 holes if he wants to take any momentum into the Masters.
In his first round since losing the No. 1 world ranking to Tiger Woods, McIlroy shot a 1-over 73 on Thursday on the Tournament Course at the Redstone Golf Club.
After shooting a 3-over-par 39 on his first nine holes, the 23-year-old Holywood, Northern Ireland native rebounded on the inward half with four birdies.
In just his ninth full round of the year, McIlroy showed positive signs that he is capable of quickly regaining No. 1 with a win this week in Houston. Yet he still isn't the player that won the PGA Championship in August by 8 shots. That level of mastery will only come with more competition.
"I feel like I hit the ball OK," McIlroy said. "I feel like if I just eliminate the stupid mistakes … I made double on a par-5 on the front nine and made a couple of silly bogeys.
"I just tried to commit to myself a little more on the back nine and it seemed to help. It was a tricky day, and if I could have got it back to even par, I would have been pretty happy, but I'm 1-over-par and hopefully the conditions are a little calmer [Friday] morning and go throughout and I can make some more birdies."
McIlroy is 9 shots back of first round leader D.A. Points, who had an 8-under 64 in Round 1. Another 73 on Friday could leave McIlroy limping home for the weekend.
At this point in the 2012 season, McIlroy was the freshly minted No. 1-ranked player in the world after winning the Honda Classic and notching four other worldwide top-fives. He had played enough golf to feel comfortable taking off nearly a month before the start of the Masters.
But he doesn't have that assurance this time around.
In McIlroy's perfect world, he would have already won this year with his new golf clubs and ball. He wouldn't have run off the golf course at the Honda Classic during his second round clutching a sore tooth and a battered ego. The tailors at Augusta National wouldn't have reason to take new measurements for Tiger Woods' fifth green jacket.
But this is the lot of the now former No. 1 player with Augusta on the horizon and much of the world waiting to see what Tiger will do.
Yet regardless of what happens here in Houston, McIlroy could go on to win the Masters in two weeks. Expectations of him could be so low that he might play with a freedom not customary in major championships. He might have an epiphany in his game in the week off before Augusta that helps him master self-doubt.
But few players enter the gates of Augusta National struggling and leave with the green jacket. McIlroy has the advantage of having those two 8-shot wins in majors, but the golf ball doesn't have a memory.
On Friday morning, McIlroy should treat his round as the most important four hours of his year. How he plays could determine the tenor of the rest of his season. A good round on Friday, then a weekend in contention, could put a little swagger back in his step.
"I've been hitting the ball great in practice," McIlroy said. "Obviously, practice and going out here and in competitive rounds is a little bit different. I think I just need rounds just to get a bit more comfortable with what I'm doing, but it's feeling pretty good."