Troubled star's confidence restored after traumatic 12-month struggle
RORY McILROY plumbed the very heart of sporting darkness during the past 12 months.
Though he began 2013 hoping to adjust to his new life at the pinnacle of his sport, the Holywood native soon fell into a harrowing downward spiral. As the season progressed and McIlroy became a gloomy shadow of the young man universally hailed as best player on the planet in 2012, discord was growing behind the scenes.
After breaking with Horizon Sports Management in April, he set up his own back-room company, Rory McIlroy Inc, in September.
At that time, he also sued his former agents in the Commercial Court. They lodged a vigorous defence and launched a counter-suit last Tuesday. This dispute is scheduled for trial next October.
McIlroy said in his moment of yesterday's victory at the Australian Open: "Since the end of September, I've just felt in a better place mentally with some things off the course. I definitely felt better with how my swing was. I just felt like everything was coming together the way I wanted it to."
McIlroy crossed the first grim milestone of 2013 in Abu Dhabi in January, when, plainly dissatisfied with his new Nike driver and putter, he missed the cut in his first tournament of the year.
After spurning a much-needed opportunity to bed in his new Nike equipment at February's Dubai Desert Classic, McIlroy was felled by Shane Lowry in the first round of the Accenture Match Play.
He then endured the darkest day of his career on Friday at the Honda Classic when, after completing just eight holes of his second round, he walked off the course.
At first he told reporters he wasn't in a good place mentally. Yet a statement issued on McIlroy's behalf claimed he had been suffering from toothache, leading media sources to question if his problems were "mental or dental".
He found himself in the eye of a storm as the sporting world scrambled to discover why the world No 1 had fallen into such a tailspin. As the months passed, nothing was spared scrutiny, ludicrously not even McIlroy's enduring relationship with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki.
A share of eighth at the Cadillac Championship in Doral in March was followed by a battling second behind Martin Laird at the Texas Open.
McIlroy then slumped into a tie for 25th over a dispiriting weekend at the Masters. There was further frustration at the US Open, underscored when he mangled his nine-iron in frustration on his way to a quadruple-bogey eight at Merion's 11th hole on Sunday.
After narrowly missing the cut at the Irish Open in Carton, the nightmare continued in July's British Open, where he failed to make the weekend. The nadir came during Thursday's 79 at Muirfield, when he putted into a bunker at 15. "That was so brain-dead," he said. "I feel I've been walking around like that for the last couple of months."
Yet a pep-talk from his venerable putting coach Dave Stockton once again helped spark a resurgence in morale and form. McIlroy also found satisfaction with a new Nike Covert driver and ball and, with coach Michael Bannon, managed to get his swing back on plane.
The Open was the last of five missed cuts this year, while McIlroy's recent rising graph would include victory over Tiger Woods in October's head-to-head at Mission Hills, followed by a couple of confidence-boosting top-10s at the HSBC Champions and DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
Yet after a season which saw him fall to sixth in the world rankings (further than any other able-bodied player who had started the year at No 1), McIlroy's confidence was fully restored only yesterday.