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Rory preps for Masters in Houston

HUMBLE, Texas -- Less than 24 hours after Tiger Woods overtook him as the No. 1-ranked player in the world, Rory McIlroy still stuck his chest out out proudly like a great champion. But now some of the pressure he felt at No. 1 had receded behind the cloud of Tiger's dramatic return to the top of the game.

The 23-year-old Irishman is here at the Augusta-like Redstone Golf Club for the Shell Houston Open, where he can be a kid again with his focus squarely on golf.

"It doesn't really bother me," he said about losing the No. 1 ranking after 32 weeks. "I want to get back to getting into contention in tournaments and trying to win. I think this is a good week to try and get into contention with the Masters coming up."

This wasn't how McIlroy envisioned things after winning the PGA Championship in August 2012 by 8 shots. Yet this minor setback could be the best thing to happen to him in his young career.

McIlroy always said that he wanted to compete against Tiger at his best. He's only seen on TV the player who was practically invincible, winning four consecutive major championships in the early 2000s. Now he may be able to see something of the legend in person, and test the greatest with his own formidable will to conquer golf's biggest stages.

"[Tiger's] been the man in golf for the last 15 years, I guess, and it's great for golf to have him playing well and, you know, hopefully I can just try and keep up with him," McIlroy said on Tuesday. "He's playing great and any tournament I'm playing in I'll have to play my best to sort of beat him, but it's not just about him and me; there's 154 other guys in the field that have a chance to win."

Unless McIlroy can win this week in Houston over a strong field that includes five of the top 10 players in the world ranking and six PGA Tour winners in 2013, he is likely to carry a relatively low profile heading into the Masters, which begins on April 11.

"I didn't think I could go into the Masters under the radar," McIlroy said. "I can go in a little bit underneath him, so in a way it's not a bad thing."

On Tuesday morning, McIlroy sent Tiger a congratulatory text for regaining his position atop the world ranking after losing it to Lee Westwood in October 2010.

McIlroy and Woods, who have deals with the same golf equipment and clothing company, have become pretty good friends over the past year. They genuinely want each other to succeed. They know that rivalries are good for the game.

For this reason, McIlroy said Tiger told him to "get my finger out of my a-- and win this week." That was Tiger's crude way of telling his younger brethren that now that the burden of carrying the mantle of No. 1 was lifted, he had one less distraction keeping him from performing at his fullest potential.

Seldom does one find good fortunate in losing. But Tiger plowing his way back through personal travails and swing changes could be the impetus to recharge McIlroy's focus on his very bright future.

"You're going to have patches where you play great and have patches where you struggle a bit," McIlroy said. "I guess you just got to take the rough and the smooth and just try and treat those times, sort of play and be patient and know that you're working on the right things."

Two weeks ago at Doral, McIlroy made significant strides with a tie for eighth that was capped off by a 7-under 65 in the final round. But with just eight full rounds in 2013, he needs another four good days this week to sharpen his competitive instincts.

McIlroy has cleared his conscious over his embarrassing withdrawal during the second round at the Honda Classic. Yet he still has to prove to himself that he can get into contention with his new equipment and the implementation of some new swing changes.

Tiger has given him a brief reprieve, but McIlroy knows that this is just a sign that he has to rise to the occasion when the world expects him to be a forceful challenger to the 77-time tour winner.

"The things that I'm trying to work on are definitely becoming a lot more comfortable," McIlroy said. "I've seen enough good signs. I just got to keep working on it and keep working on it, but you know, I definitely feel like it's going in the right direction."

This week at Redstone, where the setup is very similar to Augusta National, McIlroy said that his main goal is to get into contention and try to have a chance to win on Sunday.

But in the meantime, in these first days without the tag of No. 1 in the world, McIlroy can just enjoy being another golfer striving to make his way through a tournament week.

For him, it's a welcome relief.

"You, it's nice to just go ... not just go about my business and no one cares, but you go about it and not be, I guess, the most talked about person in golf," he said. "It's a nice thing."