This year, he is sharing the billing with Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, who have won three out of the last four majors and moved ahead of him in the world rankings.
Spieth won the Masters, denying McIlroy his moment of historymaking, and then added the US Open. Day dominated the second half of last year, culminating in his PGA Championship win.
The 26-year-old Northern Irishman is fully aware that predictions he was about to open a period of almost Tiger-esque domination of world golf have proved to be well wide of the mark and that the gauntlet has been firmly thrown down in front of him.
“I’d be lying if I said those guys having success doesn’t motivate me. Of course it does,” the four-time major winner said. “What Jordan did here last year, the US Open and the whole way through the summer and what Jason Day did during the summer and this year, as well… yeah, I don’t want to be left behind.
“I want to be a part of that conversation. I’m clinging on at the minute – a few wins will change that. You don’t want to see guys beating you. You want to be the best, so you want to go out there and win tournaments and try as hard as you can. But I feel like I’m close.”
McIlroy says that despite failing to win a tournament so far this year, he could even benefit from sharing the spotlight with defending champion Spieth and Day, who is out to win back-to-back majors.
“I was probably a little bit more exposed in terms of eyeballs on me and media coverage and whatever,” he said. “But I feel good. I probably feel a little bit more subdued going in this time because I maybe haven’t had the win this year.”
There is also the fact that McIlroy knows his game, with his natural draw and high trajectories, is ideally suited to the specific demands of Augusta National.
“I feel like I’m a good enough player. I feel like I’ve got everything I need to become a Masters champion,” he added. “But I think each and every year that passes that I don’t, it will become increasingly more difficult. So there’s no time like the present to get it done.”
The 28-year-old Australian, a winner in six of his past 13 events as he prepares for tomorrow’s start of the 80th Masters, won his first major title at last year’s PGA Championship and has 10 top-10 finishes in 21 major appearances.
But his boyhood dream was winning the Masters and his exuberance at the chance of making the fantasy real has forced Day to push himself too hard at Augusta National.
“This has been a tournament in the past that I’ve tried too hard and shot myself out,” Day said.
“So I’ve just got to kind of relax, understand that I have a certain process that I go through each tournament to get ready to compete and I need to stick to that – don’t do anything more, don’t do anything less and just go out and execute.”
Day shared second in his 2011 Masters debut and finished third in 2013, but fell to a share of 20th in 2014 and shared 28th last year.
“The first few years, I just enjoyed myself. I had a lot of fun here,” Day said. “And then as time went on, everyone would keep on asking me about, ‘When are you going to win it?’ and ‘How are you going to win it?’ and all that stuff.
“I guess I just thought, ‘I’ve got to kind of force it this year’, and that’s when I started missing stuff and making mistakes and mental errors. I kind of shot myself out of tournaments.
“So this year, I’m not going to say it’s going to be different. But I’m just going to go through my normal game plan and just play, try and play the way I have been and hope- fully I’ll give it a good run at the end of the week.”
Day’s best has been great lately. He won the Arnold Palmer Invitational and World Golf Championships- Dell Match Play Championship in his last two starts to move atop the rankings.
But with a green jacket on the line, Day finds himself overthinking his routine.
“I guess it’s just maybe looking too much into a shot, overplaying a shot or making things too complicated where they should be simple, and just trying way too hard,” Day said. “I know that if I’m reading a putt, usually I don’t read it from all angles. It’s weird. It’s more me mentally trying too hard, trying to force and will it in.
“I know there are certain steps I need to take to read putts or get information or how to execute a golf shot. I’ve just got to go through that normal pattern and try and do it that way rather than missing a step or trying mentally too hard.”
Day, who says the bulged back disc that flared up at the WGC event is fine, has played 36 holes over four days at Augusta National ahead of the Masters, but will play only the Par-3 Contest on the eve of the tournament.
“It’s very easy to get here and practice too much, because it’s just an amazing facility to practice on, so I just want to make sure I don’t overdo it,” Day said.
Day will also try to calm his instincts on the course if he is in the title hunt on Sunday.
“It’s very difficult to kind of stay in your own world, but there’s no other way to go about it,” Day said.
“It’s easy to get caught up in it. Early in my career, I couldn’t really handle that, especially in 2013 when I kind of gassed it coming in and didn’t play that well. I had the opportunity to win.
“But now, with what I’ve done the last year and a half, I feel like I’m preparing myself for a good Sunday here and a good final nine.”
Top-ranked Jason Day, defending champion Jordan Spieth, career Grand Slam seeker Rory McIlroy and a host of elite rivals have sparked an exceptional level of excitement for the 80th Masters.
A field of 89 will tee off Thursday morning at Augusta National in quest of the green jacket awarded a Masters champion, but only one will slide their arms inside the sleeves come Sunday.
Australia’s Day comes off triumphs at Bay Hill and the WGC Match Play. Northern Ireland’s McIlroy has found his form at just the right moment and American Spieth’s record-tying wire-to-wire win from last year still resonates in the Georgia pines.
Add Aussie Adam Scott, twice a winner last month, plus fourth-ranked Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters champion, 2015 Players winner Rickie Fowler and five-time major winner Phil Mickelson and the stage is set for a showdown on golf’s most acclaimed course.
From Pink Dogwood to the Golden Bell, here’s a hole-by-hole guide to one of the most famous courses in the world.