Rory McIlroy's rib injury is a serious blow to his pre-Masters plans

Rory McIlroy
A first Masters win at Augusta in April will be on McIlroy's mind as he recovers from his latest injury setback

Rory McIlroy's hopes of a fast start to the new golfing year have been shattered by his latest injury setback.

The timing of his rib stress fracture could have been worse, but it has thrown into jeopardy a carefully drawn-up plan aimed at having his game in peak condition for April's Masters.

Lengthy periods on the range testing new equipment during the Christmas break are being cited as the cause of his injury.

These, perhaps along with his strenuous gym routine, caused the problem which left him unable to compete in this week's Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

McIlroy's participation in the Dubai Desert Classic at the start of February must also be in considerable doubt. He has the reputation of being a quick healer, but rib problems can be hard to shift and he is no position to take any chances with his recovery.

The Masters is the 27-year-old's biggest priority. It is the one major to have eluded him and he would become only the sixth golfer to accomplish the career grand slam were he to claim a first green jacket.

Media playback is not supported on this device

McIlroy made five birdies in a final-round 68 in Johannesburg

This year he will be attempting to complete the full set for the third time and he has acknowledged that the longer he wait goes on, the harder it will be to complete this rare feat.

Players are always looking for the formula that helps them play their best golf in the biggest weeks. For 2017 McIlroy had decided upon a busy build up to Augusta and was planning to compete in eight tournaments before April's opening major.

Despite his injury, the Northern Irishman completed last week's BMW South African Open, losing a playoff to England's Graeme Storm. Then came the MRI scan which showed a stress fractured rib and a frustrating prescription for rest.

American orthopedic surgeon, Sandy Kunkel, who has extensive experience of sporting injuries, told the Golf Channel that the nature of McIlroy's setback is extremely rare in golf.

"They are typical in rowing or upper body weight bearing athletes," Dr Kunkel said. "Stress fractures are caused by an accumulation of micro-trauma.

"They are tiny fractures or cracks in the bone. Usually the body just heals them. If you do not give it time to heal, it can result in a full fracture.

"Typically, an injury of this sort will take a minimum of six weeks to heal."

That time frame would eliminate McIlroy's planned appearances in Dubai, Los Angeles and Florida. Suddenly the clock would be ticking rather quicker ahead of the Masters.

Realistically he might be able to return for the World Golf Championships gathering in Mexico at the start of March. Thereafter he plans to play the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill and then the WGC Matchplay in Austin, Texas.

If he plays them well it would probably provide enough pre-Masters golf but if there are kinks in his game that need ironing out, he will be under unwanted pressure in the weeks leading up to the tournament.

All he can do now is follow doctors' orders, knowing that the immediate chance of returning to the top of the world rankings has, for the moment, gone.

McIlroy is desperate for a speedy recovery, but knows it is one that he cannot rush.