Tide turning for Rory after nightmare year
HOW appropriate that the journey which took Rory McIlroy to the heart of darkness on several occasions in 2013 began and ended in the Arabian Desert.
For McIlroy spent much of this year wandering in the wilderness.
Since missing the cut in January's Abu Dhabi Championship, a traumatic season for McIlroy on the course coincided with tempestuous times off it as he severed ties with his former agents at Horizon Sports Management – they have a Commercial Court trial date at the Four Courts next October.
"Definitely a few (off-course) things impacted" on his performance, McIlroy admitted at Europe's finale, the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
Yet, after three top-10 finishes in his last four events, McIlroy is satisfied that "for the most part, my game is back where I want it to be. That's all I really care about."
The Holywood native has two more engagements in 2013 (next week's Australian Open at Royal Sydney and Tiger Woods' World Challenge in Southern California in December).
Still, his season on the major tours formally concluded at the Earth Course on Sunday, so it is timely to chart McIlroy's white-knuckle ride from the pinnacle of golf since January.
Spectacular form in the second half of 2012 propelled McIlroy well clear at the top of the world. He looked comfortable up there, wielding impressive authority at the launch of his new $20m-per-annum deal with Nike in Abu Dhabi as he heartily endorsed Paul McGinley's Ryder Cup captaincy bid.
On the course, however, he struggled with his new Nike driver and putter and missed the cut in Abu Dhabi after two 75s.
Clearly needing more competitive action to bed in his new equipment, McIlroy erred badly by not adding the Dubai Desert Classic to his early-season schedule. Beaten by good friend Shane Lowry, in the Accenture Match Play first round, his morale and confidence waned.
Walking off the course after completing eight holes on Friday at the Honda will forever haunt McIlroy. Toothache was cited but the problem was more mental than dental. Last week, McIlroy replied "maybe" when asked if off-course issues troubled him that day. Still, a closing 65 for eighth place at Doral was encouraging, even if Tiger replaced him at No 1 with his second win of the season.
Second place at the Texas Open was promising but a 79 on Saturday at Augusta stymied McIlroy at the Masters. Friction was building in the background. On April 24, weeks after signing a three-year contract extension, McIlroy informed Horizon he had decided to set up his own management company with family, friends and confidants. Two Horizon employees joined the new team.
Stablemate Graeme McDowell was caught in the middle when news broke of McIlroy's decision to leave Horizon but any misunderstandings were ironed out at the BMW PGA, where the two Ulstermen played together. McIlroy missed the cut at Wentworth, while a first-round 78 at Memorial did little to resolve his 'is it the clubs or my swing?' quandary.
Finding a driver he could hit consistently straight was a major bugbear for McIlroy in the first half of the year. His frustration boiled over on Sunday at the US Open when he mangled his nine-iron after hitting a second ball into water on his way to a quadruple-bogey eight at the 11th. Missing the cut at the Irish Open compounded his misery.
The nightmare continued at the British Open as McIlroy plumbed darker depths. During Thursday's 79, he putted into a bunker at 15. "That was so brain-dead," he said. "Seriously, I feel I've been walking around like that for the last couple of months." Muirfield was his third missed cut in five.
A pep-talk from trusted mentor Dave Stockton at Firestone appeared to work as McIlroy finished an honourable eighth in the US PGA at Oak Hill. As happened all summer, there was an awkward backdrop to tournament rounds as McIlroy's new 'tour manager' Sean O'Flaherty and former Horizon colleagues (determined to fulfil the terms of their contract with the player) found themselves at close quarters.
Hugely significant off-course developments: Rory McIlroy Inc was unveiled, with Dublin businessman and former Horizon director of strategy Donal Casey at its helm. That Friday, McIlroy's solicitors informed Horizon's legal team they were taking them to court. On the course, McIlroy found great satisfaction with a prototype driver supplied by Nike but a lack of scoring sharpness undermined his efforts at the FedEx Cup play-offs.
After a review of a 350-plus page statement of claim, Mr Justice Peter Kelly put McIlroy's case on the Commercial Court list. Horizon will launch their defence and lodge a counter-suit on November 26. The golfer finished second at the Kolon Korea Open.
Lawyers accused former sponsor Oakley of harassing McIlroy before an impending court case in California. Ironically, Horizon chief Conor Ridge is star witness for McIlroy. Undeterred, he forced his way into the European Tour finale with sixth at the HSBC Champions in Shanghai, then shared fifth in Dubai with four sub-par rounds for the first time this year. So despite all the drama, Ireland's world No 6 may yet salvage something from a nightmare year.