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Rory McIlroy forced to keep the brakes on as Masters looms

By Liam Kelly

Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama - a group of the world's top golfers who can be likened to a pack of hungry sharks out in the deep ocean stalking their prey.

Their appetite for carrying off the big prizes has been whetted by the post-Christmas roster of tournaments they have played to date.

Matsuyama (three) and now Spieth have chewed up the opposition and sated their hunger for victory.

Day remains world number one, and Johnson is edging closer to a win with every passing tournament.

Back in the shallows, Rory McIlroy can do little more than wade in up to his ankles and wait and watch - and scan the horizon with mixed feelings of anxiety and anticipation.

Time is short. Augusta is on the mind of anyone who is anyone in the world of golf, and an optimal state of readiness is required of would-be Masters champions.

McIlroy's recovery from a rib stress fracture continues steadily but it just cannot be forced.

This week he is on schedule to start hitting wedge shots.

His physical training and medical advisors require the four time major champion to gradually increase the amount and level and variety in his practice.

Pushing through the pain is not an option if he is to have any chance of regaining full fitness.

The WGC-Mexico Championship from March 2 to 5 remains the target for a return to tournament action.

Four rounds with no cut in Mexico presents McIlroy with an ideal platform on which to base a comeback.

Meanwhile, the big boys are sharpening their game mentally and physically, and pushing ahead with their build-up for April 6 to 9 in Georgia.

McIlroy has been watching the action from afar, and seeing Spieth win by four at the AT&T Pro Am at Pebble Beach will have him yearning to be back out there in the heat of battle.

Spieth shot a bogey-free 70 to seal the deal at Pebble in his hundredth PGA Tour event and gain his ninth victory - two of which were majors, the 2015 Masters and US Open.

The Texan, 23, has finished second 10 times, and has 44 top-10 finishes.

The latest victory was welcome and deserved, but Spieth highlighted something that could seriously affect McIlroy's chances at Augusta - the importance of coping with the challenges and stress of contending.

"Very valuable. Even though I finished third, third, ninth the last few, I didn't have a chance to win them, they were coming from behind," Spieth said.

"This time, to be tied for the lead through two rounds and go out and shoot the round we did yesterday (Saturday) while feeling kind of the Saturday moving day pressure of extending a lead, was really special.

"I can draw a lot off of that. Certainly, as we go into Riviera, and then move closer to the Masters and the Texas events, I'm going to be looking to get into contention again.

"The more times you can do it, the easier, the more natural it feels," he said.

Shane Lowry got to 51st in the world courtesy of his tied-14 finish on seven-under par.

But Padraig Harrington missed his third successive cut and is troubled by a persistent neck injury.

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