Los Angeles — The road to the Masters starts on the other side of the country for Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy has heard enough of Riviera that he decided to play the Northern Trust Open for the first time, and 27 holes over the last two days have left him convinced that it was a smart move and that it was worth it to add one more event to a busy schedule.
He is playing five of the next six weeks, and every field will be among the strongest in golf for this time of the year.
“I think the Masters at this point of the year is on pretty much everyone’s mind,” McIlroy said Wednesday.
“You’re building up to it. You’ve got some great events between now and then, but obviously I’d love my game to be in peak shape for Augusta in April.”
McIlroy has played twice this year, a tie for third in Abu Dhabi and a tie for sixth in Dubai, and typically waits until the Florida swing to get into gear.
Instead, he tees it up Thursday with a field that has five of the top eight in the world, starting with Jordan Spieth at No. 1. The Honda Classic next week in Florida is expected to have a strong field, and then Doral will bring together the top three — Spieth, Jason Day and McIlroy — for the first time since September.
McIlroy also is scheduled to play at Bay Hill and then the Match Play for the top 64 in the world.
“It’s going to be a great stretch of golf,” he said. “I think the guys that are up at the top of the world rankings now, we like to play quite a bit.
“It’s great to be able to play week in and week out against some of the best fields in the world. You want to challenge yourself, and you want to test yourself against the best that’s out here.”
“I think we’ll see that happen here, and then obviously as we move into Florida.”
Even so, Augusta is on his mind.
McIlroy had all the attention on him last year during the weeks leading to the Masters as the undisputed No. 1 player in the world going after a third straight major and a chance to complete the career Grand Slam.
Now he’s one of three battling for No. 1 in the world.
McIlroy slipped back to No. 3 this week behind Day. When he won the Match Play last year, he told about a ritual of going to the Official World Golf Ranking website to see the size of his lead at No. 1. Now, he doesn’t look at the ranking as much. He knows he’s not No. 1.
“It’s a real treat when you come to a golf course like this where it’s not overly long, you don’t have to really bomb it off the tee, but it’s real strategic,” McIlroy said.
“You’ve got to place your ball on the right sides of the fairways. You have to make sure you hit it to the right side of the greens. You can’t really get it above the pin. It’s a real thinker’s golf course, and it’s a real treat to play something like this because we don’t get to play them that often anymore.”
East Lake changes
The PGA Tour made it official Tuesday it would flip the nines at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club for the Tour Championship, along with golf course architect Rees Jones making a few other changes.
Jones was walking the course last year and talking to various players about the changes.
By flipping the nines, the Tour Championship — and possibly the FedEx Cup and its $10 million bonus — now will be decided on a par 5 instead of a par 3. The Tour said in a release that the final five holes now will have the potential for more lead changes.
Previously, the back nine was a strong test from the 13th hole onward, with the exception of the par-5 15th.
Now, the final stretch will start with the 14th hole (previously No. 5), which is one of the most difficult par 4s at East Lake. It will be followed by the par 3 over the lake to a peninsula green, with two holes that will be modified before reaching the par 5 final hole.
The Tour said the landing area on the new 18th would be modified with bunkers added to the second landing area and around the green.
One reason for the change that PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem told The Associated Press last year made sense.
“If we get into a close finish or a playoff situation and you come to the last hole, those minutes are really valuable,” Finchem said. “People are streaming back to the telecast. They hear it’s a playoff. They hear it’s tight.
“When you get there, you want that last hole to be as impactful as possible. You want it to last a while. If it’s a three-shot hole or a reachable par 5, there’s more golf to see than if it’s tied or a one-shot lead and you’re playing a par 3.”
Spieth will be playing the opening two rounds at Riviera with Justin Thomas, whom he beat in the NCAA finals at Riviera in 2012. Joining them will be 56-year-old Fred Couples.
… Graeme McDowell’s “Best of Ireland” dinner at the New York Athletic Club last week raised $600,000. The G-Mac Foundation has partnered with the Children’s Medical Research Foundation to bring the event to New York in 2012. Since then, it has raised more than $2.7 million to help fund the building of an in-patient cardiac unit that cares for 500 seriously ill children each year in a Dublin hospital.
… Charlie Danielson shot a 68 in the Northern Trust Open Collegiate Showcase, earning him a spot in the tournament.
Northern Trust Open
Course: Riviera Country Club (7,322 yards, par 71), Los Angeles
Purse: $6.8 million ($1,224,000 winner)
TV: Golf Channel — 5-8 p.m., 8:30-11:30 p.m. Thursday; 2-5 a.m., 5-8 p.m., 8:30-11:30 p.m. Friday; 2-5 a.m., 1-2:30 p.m., 7-9 p.m. Saturday; 2-6 a.m., 1-2:30 p.m., 7 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Sunday. CBS — 3-6 p.m. Saturday, 3-6:30 p.m. Sunday
2015 winner: James Hahn
Course: The Grange Golf Club, West Course (6,600 yards, par 72), Adelaide, Australia
Purse: $1.3 million ($195,000 winner)
TV: Golf Channel — 11:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Thursday; 2-4 p.m., 11:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday; 3-6 p.m., 9 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday; 3-6:30 p.m. Sunday
2015 winner: Lydia Ko