Grand Slam glory beckons for McIlroy
RORY McILROY has a gilt-edged opportunity next season to become the first European to complete a career Grand Slam.
The lessons McIlroy (23) learned on and off the golf course this year and the shots he added to a growing repertoire make his prospects for 2013 look even more exciting than recent stellar achievements.
McIlroy has been named 'Player of the Year' by his peers on the US PGA Tour, but even as accolades and awards pour in, the Ulsterman has no trouble setting goals for the new year.
Despite his mercurial past four months, sparked by a record-breaking second Major victory at August's US PGA, the ambitious Holywood star believes there's still plenty of room for improvement.
His principal ambition is to contend at each Major next season ... yet it's within McIlroy's ambit to become only the sixth golfer in history, the first from Europe and the youngest ever, to complete the set by winning all four.
Nobody's better equipped for the challenge posed by Augusta National and, with his confidence boosted by the US Open and PGA Championship titles already under his belt, McIlroy's rating as a 9/2 favourite to don the Green Jacket in April makes perfect sense.
After rebounding from his Sunday afternoon meltdown at the 2011 Masters to register a runaway victory at the US Open in Congressional just 70 days later, McIlroy was widely expected to settle the score at Augusta last April.
Yet after taking a three-week break in the run-up to the Masters, he went into that tournament cold. So, instead of opening the throttle at the weekend, McIlroy played his first eight holes on Saturday morning in five-over.
A tweak to his schedule will see McIlroy bridge the four-week gap next season between Doral and the Masters by playing the Shell Houston Open a fortnight before Augusta.
With due respect to defending champion Bubba Watson and four-times winner Tiger Woods, if McIlroy goes to next April's Masters in good health and with his golf game sharp, one suspects only one man can bar his path to the green jacket ... himself.
McIlroy's prospects of winning June's US Open at Merion, the shortest, tightest and most intricate Major venue for many years, will hinge on the course set-up.
Yet rarely, outside of St Andrews, will this gifted youngster have a finer chance of lifting the Claret Jug than at Muirfield, that jewel among British Open Championship courses which almost always brings out the best in the best.
Weather-permitting, of course.
One recalls, for example, the Saturday afternoon storm which blew Tiger Woods, our own Des Smyth, and almost half the field off course there in 2002.
Still, McIlroy is far better equipped now to cope with the occasional ill wind.
Take the 4-iron McIlroy held-up into a driving right to left gale at the par-three 14th hole on Friday at Kiawah Island. His ball touched down within six feet of a suicide pin overlooking the cavernous left bunker, setting up a sensational birdie.
Also memorable was the little punched 6-iron he played into the teeth of the seaside breeze at the seventh hole on Saturday at the Irish Open in Portrush, which spoke chapters for the control McIlroy now exercises over his ball flight.
Don't let anyone tell you McIlroy can't play in the wind.
Should he win the Masters and then at Muirfield, McIlroy will join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods with that rare distinction of a career Grand Slam.
As he relaxes on his mid-winter break, this week travelling with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki from the Rocky Mountains resort of Aspen, Colorado, to a tennis tournament in Rio de Janeiro, McIlroy gives a glimpse of the ambition that still burns within.
Looking forward to next season, he said: "I still feel I can improve in all aspects of my game, add more variety and a couple of shots here and there.
"If there was a disappointment this year, it's that I contended only once at the Majors. I'd love to be in contention at all four next year and at least give myself a chance to win."
Just 11 days after McIlroy closed the European Tour season with his five-birdie finish in Dubai, the 2013 campaign opens with today's first round of the Nelson Mandela Championship in Durban, where Peter Lawrie and Damien McGrane fly the Irish flag.
Darren Clarke figures with Bubba Watson and defending champion Lee Westwood in a star-studded field at the Asian Tour's Thailand Golf Championship, while the Australian Open swung into action early today in Sydney.
Nelson Mandela Championship,
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