RORY McILROY gave the impression midway through an eventful week in Shanghai that he could see beams of light at the end of the tunnel.
Sadly, they would turn out to be the golfing equivalent of an on-rushing train, which crushed the Ulsterman over the weekend at the BMW Masters.
Following on from the infuriating double-bogey six at 18 which blighted his third-round 71 on Saturday, McIlroy stumbled to a deflating one-over-par 73 yesterday and tumbled into a share of 27th with playing companion Padraig Harrington. Ireland's multiple Major champions both missed out on the final-day birdie-fest at Lake Malaren and finished 10 shots behind winner Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano.
The noble Spaniard (33) survived a nervy double-bogey on 18 for a final round of 68 which clinched his seventh European Tour victory by one stroke. An €851,346 cheque boosted Gonzo's hopes of playing the Ryder Cup for the first time next September.
As his victory drought on the US and European Tours stretches to over 50 months and he languishes outside the top 100, Harrington's prospects of winning a place on Paul McGinley's team in 2014 are dwindling.
It may seem preposterous to suggest McIlroy (24) one of golf's most naturally talented players, may also struggle to make that side. After all, as world No 6, the Holywood native, unlike Harrington, enjoys automatic entry to all the Majors and dollar-rich World Golf Championships, like this week's $8.5m HSBC Champions at Sheshan International.
Yet McIlroy has learned a hard lesson in recent months: while it's possible to go downhill in leaps and bounds, the long haul back to the summit usually must be made in exasperatingly small steps.
At times in Lake Malaren, McIlroy hit his new Nike ball majestically, especially off the tee. Yet his confidence and composure were gradually eroded by glaring weaknesses in his short game, so in yesterday's final round, he found just eight of 14 wide fairways off the tee and missed nine of 18 greens in regulation.
This in part explains why he took just 27 putts on Sunday, against 32 in each of the first three rounds. Indeed, McIlroy was left with precious little cause for cheer, even if he birdied two of the final three holes.
Like Harrington, he earned €48,894, and now is 62nd in the Race to Dubai.
With nearly $25,000 to be banked by the man who finishes last in the HSBC next Sunday, he's certain to clinch a place in the 60-man field at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
Still, the 'paltry' €494,706 European prize money McIlroy collected this season leaves him a whopping €1.66m behind leader Henrik Stenson and with only the flimsiest mathematical chance of retaining the Race to Dubai title.
Harrington threatened to give his standings a boost as he played his first five holes in two-under yesterday. However, a couple of ugly double-bogeys before the turn put paid to that and he too signed for a 73. Currently 67th in the Race to Dubai, €54,486 beyond the pale, Harrington will need a top-15 finish in the final qualifying event, the Turkish Open, next Sunday week to make Europe's season-ending showpiece for the 17th time in 18 years.
Only two Irish golfers figure in the top-60, Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry. McDowell, second in the standings, just €443,725 behind Stenson, completed his first tournament as a married man with a muted 74. A share of 56th brought him €16,785, less than half as much as Stenson, who leapfrogged G-Mac with a sweet 65.
Lowry, 33rd in the Money List after boosting his season's earnings by €54,075 in Shanghai to €770,503, posted an impressive five-under 67 yesterday, making him Ireland's top finisher in 24th on two-under.
Meanwhile, Korean amateur Lee Chang-woo (20) clinched a place at April's US Masters by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur title by three with a final round 70 at Nanshan International in China. China's Guan Tianlang, who at 14 became the youngest competitor in Masters history this year, completed his defence of the Asia-Pacific crown in eighth on five-over after a closing 73.
Ryan Moore and Gary Woodland had to come back in the morning for their sudden-death showdown at the PGA Tour's CIMB Classic in Malaysia. The two Americans completed 72 holes on 14-under, one clear of the field, in storm-tossed Kuala Lumpur. Yet darkness fell before the play-off could take place.