There's a long way to go, McIlroy told reporters in Austin, Texas. Photo: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES – Northern Ireland star Rory McIlroy says he can't afford to focus on a possible return to world number one as he prepares for this week's WGC-Dell Match Play.

McIlroy said he won't even allow himself to ponder the possibility of a last-16 clash with Tiger Woods, preferring to concentrate on the pool matches he must get through to set up a possible meeting with the 14-time major champion.

“There's a long way to go,” McIlroy told reporters in Austin, Texas, where the event tees off on Wednesday.

McIlroy will open against big-hitting American Luke List, in a group that also includes England's Matthew Fitzpatrick and South African Justin Harding.

McIlroy said that he'd texted Fitzpatrick with a simple aim when he saw they were in the same group: “let’s make sure we both have something to play for when we play each other in the last pool game on Friday,” McIlroy told him. “That's honestly as far as I've thought ahead.”

McIlroy, a four-time major champion coming off a victory at the Players Championship two weeks ago, could jump from fourth back to number one in the world with a victory - if current No. 1 Dustin Johnson fails to reach the semi-finals and Justin Rose doesn't make it to the semis.

McIlroy won all three of his round-robin pool matches on the way to the 2015 title, but bowed out in pool play the last two years and said he therefore wouldn't look further ahead.

“That's the first step in the process and if I win seven matches this week, then awesome. But, again, winning tournaments, getting number one, all those accolades, it's a by-product of doing all the little things right,” he said. 

“Step by step they will add up to all that stuff that other people find important.”

Woods is a three-time winner of the WGC Match Play, but hasn't played it since 2013 when all rounds were knockout rounds.

“This'll be a little different,” he said of the round-robin format, which will send the winner from each of 16 four-man groups through to the knockout stage.

“I guess you can halve a match and still move on. I don't really know the intricacies of it,” Woods said, but added: “It's not real complicated, play well and take care of the guy in front of me.”

Woods, who arrived Monday and played nine holes at Austin Country Club, opens the Dell Technologies Match Play against Aaron Wise, an NCAA champion from Oregon and the PGA Tour rookie of the year.

Wise will be the 21st player who had never played with Woods since he returned from back surgeries that kept him out of golf for most of two years.

Woods will play Wise on Wednesday, with matches against fellow Americans Brandt Snedeker and Patrick Cantlay to follow.

Agence France-Presse (AFP)