Rory McIlroy plays his approach to the 18th at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club near Tucson n Tuesday. Picture by Fran Caffrey/GolffileThere was a time when the scent of pine and sight of blooming azaleas signalled the start of the golfing season but when the top 64 players in the world gather in the high desert in Arizona in March, the countdown to the Masters is foremost in the minds of the game’s elite.

Bar the holidaying Phil Mickelson and the injured Paul Casey, all the favourites for the green jacket are in Tucson this week hoping to lay down a marker before they get to Augusta in seven weeks’ time.

In the case of the world’s top three, there is a lot of stake with world number one Luke Donald in danger of losing his status as the game’s top player to Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood, his immediate pursuers in the rankings.

McIlroy knows that a maiden World Golf Championship victory would see him become the first Irish player to reach the summit of the game, providing Donald does not make it to the third round.

But the temptation to look too far ahead is one that all three Irish contenders must resist if they are to make a run for the title with Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke facing tough first round matches against YE Yang and Nick Watney respectively.

As for McIlroy, the 22-year old US Open champion takes on 25-year old South African George Coetzee still stinging from successive second round defeats in an event where he burst onto the world stage with a run to the quarter-finals on his US debut in 2009.

“I don’t know much about George but I’ve seen his name up on the leaderboard recently so he’s obviously playing very well,” said McIlroy, who was thrashed 8 and 7 by Ben Crane in the second round last year.

“I’d like to get a good run in this event after getting beaten in the second round for the last couple of years but everyone’s dangerous. I got to the quarters in 09 and it would be nice to get a good run. If you make the weekend you never know what might happen from there.

“World No 1? It’s something I’d love to achieve but it will take care of itself if I keep improving and play the way I know I can. I can’t control what Luke or anyone else does.”

McIlroy would love to win in America for the third time but he’s looking at the big picture and his thoughts are on taking care of unfinished business in Augusta in April.

Recent reports of fundamental changes in his swing are wide of the mark, he says. Keeping an eye on his fundamentals is what he’s working on as he faces a three week stretch before going into Masters preparation mode on the range.

“Everyone is asking me, why are you trying to change the swing you won the US Open with by eight shots but all I am trying to do is get my swing back to where it was then,” he said. “You fall into bad habits all the time and it is just a matter of teasing it back out and that’s all I’m trying to do.”

Like McIlroy, Clarke, McDowell and former number one Tiger Woods will head from Arizona to Florida for the Honda Classic and the WGC-Cadillac Championship hoping to play their way into form.

If Woods recovers from his Sunday putting collapse at Pebble Beach and beats Spain’s Gonzalo Fernandez Castaño and Clarke sees off the excellent Nick Watney, they will meet tomorrow in a replay of the 2000 final of this event at La Costa, where Clarke won 4 and 3.

All has changed in their world’s since then, of course, and Clarke is loathe to think further ahead than today as he bids to rediscover his Open winning form following six months of disappointing results.

He blames his own high expectations for the fact that he has finished no higher than 20th since the Open but hopes that his weekend working with mental coach Dr Bob Rotella in Tucson will help him.

“Just expectations went up through the roof and unfortunately as much as I tried not to do that I couldn’t get away from it,” Clarke said of his recent run. “So I am my own worst enemy at times.”

As for the chances of a re-match with Woods tomorrow, he grinned and said: “One of the benefits of being 43 and being in the game a very long time is I would never look any further than each round and that’s what I did in 2000 or whenever I have done well in matchplay. You just take it one match at a time.”

McDowell believes he has finally shaken of the “hangover” of momentous 2010 season and win or lose against the “dogged” Yang, he’s prepared to be patient as the clocks ticks down to the Masters.

Set to get the championship underway at 7.25 am when takes on Yang hoping to avenge last year’s third round defeat, he said: “I’m playing a lot better than I was then, I’m rested and fresh and I’m excited about my game and my year. It’s all there simmering and if it doesn’t boil this week I’ll just wait for the week where I can put it all together.”