(Reuters) - Rory McIlroy is shifting into his head-to-head mode for the WGC-Dell Match Play tournament starting on Wednesday, and believes a successful defense of his title would set him up perfectly for next month's Masters.
McIlroy, 26, heads to Austin Country Club seeking his first win of the season in what will be his last tournament before bidding to complete a career grand slam at Augusta National.
The Northern Irishman is competing for the first time in Austin, where world number one Jordan Spieth won the U.S. college championship with the University of Texas, but the world number three said course knowledge is not critical.
"It's about playing the player that's in front of you there on the first tee," said McIlroy.
"It's a sprint. It's 18 holes. You don't really have time to find your rhythm. You need to try to make birdies from the get-go. And that's the approach I've adopted the last few years."
The event features 16 four-player groups, with the winners of each group advancing to knockout stages.
McIlroy, who will face 66th-ranked Dane Thorbjorn Olesen on Wednesday, is keen to notch a victory before Augusta, especially given recent performances by many of his rivals.
"Seeing the guys that have won, with Bubba (Watson) in LA, Adam (Scott) in those two starts in Florida, Charl (Schwartzel) in Tampa and Jason (Day) last week, everyone is running in good form," McIlroy said.
"I feel like I'm close. I'm probably not quite where they are, and I haven't had the confidence of getting a win this year, but I feel like it's close," added the Northern Irishman, who tied for third at this month's WGC-Cadillac Championship.
McIlroy won this tournament last year in San Francisco. This year, the world number three is coming to Spieth's home turf and McIlroy said a potential duel with Texan Spieth would ratchet up the atmosphere to Ryder Cup levels.
"If I were to play Jordan Spieth at any point this week, I'm sure the atmosphere out there would be just as hostile as the Ryder Cup, seeing where he's from, and he's obviously very popular here.
"People really get into it," Ryder veteran McIlroy said about match play. "I feel like you either have to choose one guy or the other."
Spieth will open against Welshman Jamie Donaldson while Australian world number two Day faces former U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland.
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)