​McIlroy putting finishing touches to pre-Masters schedule
Augusta National’s 13th green

Augusta National’s 13th green

Rory McIlroy’s early 2019 schedule remains a work in progress but it appears he will play at least six events before the Masters in April as he seeks that elusive green jacket.

The Co Down man (29) has his sights set on completing the career Grand Slam before he bids for US Open at Pebble Beach, the US PGA at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course and The Open at Royal Portrush.

While he appears more likely to skip the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open than play it right now, his focus is firmly fixed on getting his schedule right.

Equipment tweaks appears likely as TaylorMade prepares to launch new products. But it seems he won't be taking a leaf out of Francesco Molinari’s playbook by bolstering his coaching team with the addition of performance specialist Dave Alred in his bid to end four-year major drought.

The man who helped Jonny Wilkinson and Johnny Sexton exploit their kicking talents before turning his attention to golf is not on the payroll, according to McIlroy ’s management team, despite tour talk that he might make the move.

Alred teaches practice discipline and routine, famously helping not just Pádraig Harrington and Paul McGinley, but also giving Luke Donald the mindset of an “assassin” and Molinari the tools to become a major winner, a Ryder Cup talisman and European number one this year.

The Englishman, who has a PHd in Performing Under Pressure from Loughborough University, talks about the importance of players putting themselves in what calls the “ugly zone” when they are practising.

”They've got to want to achieve," he told CNN this year. "Some players will argue, 'when I'm comfortable I play well,' but when you're playing things happen, and you get in areas where you're uncomfortable so wouldn't it be better to practice in an area that makes you uncomfortable so you can cope with whatever the tournament throws at you?"

Whatever about his complements to lifelong swing coach Michael Bannon, McIlroy is moving out of his comfort zone as far as his schedule is concerned, skipping the Middle East swing to focus exclusively on the PGA Tour until the summer.

He begins the season at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii from January 3-6 and while the rest of his US-based pre-Masters schedule is still a work in progress, he intends to play the Genesis Open at Riviera (Feb 14-17) and the following week’s World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship  (Feb 21-24).

The Honda Classic, which he has missed just once (through injury) since 2009, is conspicuous by its absence.

Instead, (or for now, at least)he’s planning to defend the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill (March 7-10) and the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass (March 14-17) before heading to the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin (March 27-31).

The Open is a big goal, and it will be a motivating factor for most of the 240-strong field teeing it up in this week's South African Open at Randpark Golf Club.

As the second event in The Open Qualifying Series, there are spots at Royal Portrush up for grabs for top three non-exempt players who finish in the top ten in Johannesburg.

Galgorm's Michael Hoey, Mount Juliet's Gavin Moynihan and Old Conna's Neil O'Briain — last year's Sunshine Tour "Rookie of the Year"— are the Irish hopefuls in a field that features 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, fellow South Africans Charl Schwartzel, Dylan Frittelli and Branden Grace and England's Matt Wallace.

The PGA Tour's silly season continues in Florida tomorrow with the 54-hole million QBE Shootout at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples.

While Graeme McDowell finished second to Steve Stricker and Sean O'Hair in partnership with Shane Lowry last year, he's partnering Argentina's Emiliano Grillo this week.

"G-Mac got an invite, I didn’t," said *Lowry, who enjoyed last year’s event.

On the Staysure Tour, Paul McGinley and Brendan McGovern fly the flag in the €450,000 MCB Tour Championship-Mauritius at Constance Belle Mare Plage.

With just next week's MCB Tour Championship - Seychelles remaining this year, McGovern is 37th on the money list, €56,632 outside the top 20 who will be fully exempt next year.

*Criteria for the 24-person field: Defending champions (playing as a team), top 12 players available from the 2018 FedExCup points list through the TOUR Championship, 10 special exemptions (a minimum of four to be selected from the top 40 on the PGA TOUR career money list).