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Rory McIlroy can reclaim Tiger Woods’ No. 1 ranking with win in Houston

Tiger Woods’ return engagement at the top of the world rankings will be more like a one-week stand if Rory McIlroy wins the Shell Houston Open.

Warren Little

Rory McIlroy received with good humor Tiger Woods’ trash-talking text urging the recently deposed No. 1 to pick up his game (or words to that effect).

Several hours after scores of text and voice-mail messages congratulating Woods for reclaiming golf’s top spot began pouring in, McIlroy checked in with his boyhood idol.

"Well done," typed No. 2.

Woods’ raunchy response left little doubt (and even less to the imagination) that he looked forward to playing musical chairs with his young rival at the head of the rankings register. McIlroy, who ditched Arnold Palmer’s tourney in favor of hanging with his girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki, in Miami, was optimistic he could return the favor by winning this week’s Shell Houston Open.

"[Woods has] been the man in golf for the last 15 years and it’s great for golf to have him play well," McIlroy, who lost his 32-week hold on first place when Woods won his 77th PGA Tour event at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, told reporters ahead of this week’s tilt at Redstone GC in Humble, Texas. "And, you, know, hopefully, I can try to keep up with him.’’

In the meantime, McIlroy suggested he was pleased to tune up for the men’s first major of the season with the blaze of the spotlight shining elsewhere.

"I didn't think I could go into the Masters under the radar. I can go in a little bit underneath him, so, in a way, it's not a bad thing," said McIlroy, who worked on his game in virtual anonymity at a Miami municipal course not far from where Wozniacki played in a pro tennis match. "You know, it’s nice to just go -- not just go about my business and no one cares, but you go about and not be, I guess, the most talked about person in golf.’’

McIlroy has turned in lackluster performances in the past in the Houston event (MC in 2010, T19 the year before). This time around, while his goal was to win and take back the crown from Woods, he was anxious first to put a tough start to his 2013 season behind him and contend for his seventh tour victory.

"We're not machines, we're humans," said McIlroy, who missed the cut in Abu Dhabi after his much-ballyhooed equipment change to Nike, lost in match play in the first round, and quit the Honda Classic midway through his second round. "You're going to have patches where you play great and have patches where you struggle a little bit. I guess you've just got to take the rough and the smooth and just . . . sort of play and be patient and know that you're working on the right things."

The two-time major champion believed he made substantial progress with his balky swing at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, a no-cut event that Woods tucked away for his second win of the season. He was confident he could take that spark with him to Houston -- and then to Augusta, where he looked forward to taking on a torrid Tiger.

"It seems like most weeks he comes out, he's hitting the ball very solidly, and anyone that's going to beat him is going to have to play very, very well," said McIlroy, who will tee it up on Thursday with only seven official rounds of stroke play on his 2013 scorecard.

"The last competitive round I played was the last day at Doral and shot 65. Felt like I saw a got of good things there," he added. "It’s been going well in practice and this is a good week to try to get into contention and, you know, have a chance to win with the Masters coming up."

After Houston, McIlroy will travel to Haiti to meet with victims of that country’s 2010 earthquake. He made a similar trip in 2011 under the auspices of UNICEF and returned in time to blow the field away in a record-setting romp at the U.S. Open.

"It was a very humbling place and it was a very eye-opening experience for me," McIlroy said. "I feel like it's something that has been pretty close to me since I've been there."

McIlroy will take the field at 12:50 p.m. local time Thursday. Joining him on the first tee (7:50 a.m. on No. 10 on Friday) will be Keegan Bradley, who tied for third at Bay Hill, and 2013 Hyundai Tournament of Champions winner Dustin Johnson.

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