RORY McIlroy is happy the weather is not the only thing that is completely different in this week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
McIlroy was the world number one 12 months ago when he followed a missed cut in Abu Dhabi - his first event with his expensive new Nike equipment - with a first-round defeat to fellow Irishman Shane Lowry, in a match delayed 24 hours by heavy snow at Dove Mountain.
It marked the start of a largely miserable 2013 for McIlroy, who struggled on the course and found himself involved in legal battles off it, before a late-season rally culminated in his only win of the year at the Australian Open in December.
“It’s much more settled, I can just go about my business and play my golf,” McIlroy told a pre-tournament press conference when asked to compare 2014 to 2013. “Everything is in a good place, the game is in good shape I feel.
“Compared to this time last year, it’s so different. I don’t have to go through any changes in equipment, don’t have to answer the questions. It’s also nice to be wearing a t-shirt, not have to wear any sweaters or mittens.”
Rated a 14/1 favourite to win a first World Golf Championships title and the £915,000 first prize, McIlroy has shown some good form in 2014, finishing second in Abu Dhabi after a costly two-shot penalty for taking an improper drop in the third round, as well as a top-10 finish in the Dubai Desert Classic.
However, the two-time major winner flattered to deceive somewhat in Dubai, following a stunning opening 63 with rounds of 70, 69 and 74, slipping from second place to ninth in the final round.
“I haven’t hit the ball as well for a long time,” he added. “It’s been a good start to the season. I have two events under my belt and had a chance to win both of them.
“I was a little disappointed with how I putted at the weekend in Dubai but have spent two days with (putting coach) Dave Stockton here and it was nice to catch up with him and have him take a look at it. He doesn’t have to tell me much, just a slight grip change.”
The 24-year-old comes into this year’s event ranked seventh in the world, although he is the top seed in the Ben Hogan bracket thanks to the withdrawals of Tiger Woods, Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson, and faces former US Ryder Cup player Boo Weekley in the opening round on Wednesday.
Victory over Weekley could set up a clash with Ryder Cup team-mate Lee Westwood in the second round - Westwood faces rising star Harris English - with 10 of Europe’s heroes from the ‘Miracle at Medinah’ in the 64-man field.
Also in the Ben Hogan bracket, 2010 winner Ian Poulter takes on American Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia faces Australian Marc Leishman - the European pair could meet in the last 16 - while US Open champion Justin Rose is top seed in the Gary Player bracket and takes on Scott Piercy.
The winner of that match will face the winner of the clash between Ernie Els and debutant Stephen Gallacher, while past and present BMW PGA Championship winners Luke Donald and Matteo Manassero face each other in an intriguing contest.
Francesco Molinari takes on Danish veteran Thomas Bjorn, while Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger has the daunting task of taking on defending champion Matt Kuchar.
Kuchar has a 15-3 record in this event having reached at least the quarter-finals in the last three years, but does not believe match play requires a large change in strategy from stroke play.
“It’s rare that the occasion pops up where I deviate from how I would play a stroke play event,” Kuchar said. “I think you have to try to hit the best shot for the situation, just like you would in stroke play.
“There are pins that aren’t ever worth going for. You may occasionally have to change a strategy or maybe be more aggressive if you know that the opponent is in with a tap-in birdie, but for the most part my strategy stays the same.”
Spain’s Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano also has a tough task against American Hunter Mahan, who is 11-1 over the last two years after winning the title in 2012 and losing out to Kuchar in last year’s final.
Ryder Cup hero Martin Kaymer takes on Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, Graeme McDowell faces the big-hitting Gary Woodland and Mikko Ilonen is up against the in-form Bubba Watson, winner of the Northern Trust Open on Sunday.
European number one Henrik Stenson is the top seed in the Bobby Jones bracket and faces Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat.