McIlroy opens up about major goals, career regrets, and his 'Big 3' rivalry with Spieth and Day

Rory McIlroy admits his 2014 season, in which he won his third and fourth majors, were 'slightly above my expectations' David Cannon/R&A/Getty Images

For professional athletes at the top of their game, it's not uncommon to set targets.

When Tiger Woods was a youngster making his way in golf, he made little secret of the fact he had set his sights on Jack Nicklaus' record of winning 18 majors. In soccer, Manchester United's legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson infamously said his main goal was to knock archrival Liverpool "right off their perch." And Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton was all singing and dancing on Sunday when he finally matched childhood hero Ayrton Senna's haul of three titles.

Rory McIlroy prefers the more understated approach.

McIlroy notes his goals for the upcoming year on his boarding pass as he jets to the Middle East for the European Tour's season-opening Desert Swing. So what kind of things does the world No.3 write? It's a safe bet that the majors feature high on the list, but, he tells ESPN, he "can't be giving too many secrets away".

"Flying to the Middle East each January is the beginning of my golfing season, and I do scribble down a few goals and aspirations," he says ahead of his flight to the Turkish Airlines Open, the first event of the European Tour's Final Series for which he has received a special exemption, as the Race to Dubai heats up.

"I don't hide the fact that the majors mean the most to me, so there will be emphasis on being in good physical and mental shape in the early part of the season.

"I've also got the Rio Olympics and the Ryder Cup in the U.S. to think about in 2016. It'll be a busy year and one I'll have to plan for carefully.

"The Masters is up there. I'll prepare for it in the same way I prepare for all the majors, and work towards getting all the parts of my game to click into place at the right time."

Even when pushed to reveal what he wrote in previous years, McIlroy keeps his cards -- or boarding passes, as it were -- close to his chest.

"I think it's safe to say that 2014's achievements were slightly above my expectations," says McIlroy, who won his third and fourth majors -- the Open Championship and PGA Championship -- that year, as well as his first World Golf Championship at the Bridgestone Invitational and the European Tour's flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. This despite the fact he had ended his engagement to tennis ace Caroline Wozniacki just days before.

In contrast, McIlroy's 2015 season yielded three wins, all in the first half of the year -- the Dubai Desert Classic, WGC Match Play and Wells Fargo Championship.

"This year has been a little below par," he adds, excusing his own pun.

"I can also tell you that an eight-week lay-up was not something I wrote on my boarding pass."

McIlroy is, of course, referring to the ruptured ankle ligaments he sustained while playing soccer with friends in his native Northern Ireland. The injury not only cost him two months on the sidelines, but his Open title defence -- at the Home of Golf, St. Andrews, no less -- as well as denying the golfing public the chance to see him at full strength to take on golf's hottest properties of 2015, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, for the remainder of the PGA Tour season.

"There will be plenty of writing on the boarding pass in January," he says.

But not soccer?

"Not soccer..."

With fans across the world licking their lips at the prospect of golf's new so-called "Big 3" going shot-for-shot at next year's biggest tournaments, McIlroy -- currently ranked third behind No.1 Spieth, the Masters and U.S. Open champion, and No.2 Day, who succeeded McIlroy in lifting the Wanamaker Trophy -- admits the prospect is whetting his appetite too.

"I'd really enjoy the challenge of us all being there on the Sunday at Augusta, or any tournament for that matter," he says. "Jordan and Jason are both extremely strong mentally, so it would be difficult to separate them.

"Competition and rivalry is very healthy for all sport, and I'm happy that the world of golf is hoping to see the three of us as a repeat of the three-way rivalry between Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. We're not quite there yet, but it'll be a lot of fun and exciting golf if it happens."

As for being world No.3, McIlroy is happy to let the rankings "do the talking", but not without issuing a stark warning to his rivals.

"The world No.1 is the guy playing the best golf, winning the most tournaments with the highest world ranking points -- it's really that simple," he says. "Jordan's doing all of that very successfully at the moment.

"We know how quickly that can change and I see it as my duty and responsibility to try and regain that top slot."

At least one major victory will go a long way to achieving that particular goal, and while McIlroy prefers to keep us in the dark over his plans for 2016, he has publicly spoken about his desire to slip into golf's most famous item of clothing -- the Masters' green jacket.

So it comes as a small surprise when ESPN asks him if he had the choice between winning next year's Masters and nothing else, or all the other three majors and not the Masters, which would he choose?

"When history's written, it's all about the major count. While the Masters is the one I've yet to get my hands on, and an important one to me, it's not worth more than the other three majors."

"But," he adds with a smile, "you can ask me that question again in a few years' time."