Rory McIlroy's 2013 PGA Tour season was supposed to be another celebrated step toward his pending dominance of professional golf.
Instead, the past seven months have been a parade of questionable play, unquestionably bad judgement, waning confidence and inconsistent performances that have added up to a frustrating winless season.
Not only has the young Irishman's progress stalled, but Rory has also taken a noticeable step backwards since switching to Nike Golf equipment in January 2013.
While there's little doubt the decline is linked to his switch from Titleist to Nike, multiple physical and mental culprits have conspired to stymie Rory's rise in 2013.
Here is a look at five significant reasons the 24-year-old McIlroy has found the sledding so difficult the past seven months and why he's desperate for answers heading into next week's British Open.
Most people would say either Monday or Wednesday ranks as their least favorite day of the week.
Not McIlroy, at least not right now.
For the world’s second-ranked golfer, it almost has to be Saturday that gives him the blues. In fact, it's that particular day that has cost Rory the best opportunities to break his troubling winless streak dating back to August 2012.
While it’s certainly difficult to ascertain why, McIlroy’s Saturday scoring average during his eight third-round starts on the PGA Tour this season, including The Masters and the U.S. Open, ranks 183rd on the PGA Tour.
By contrast, his scoring average before the cut ranks 53rd and his Sunday performance is a relatively strong 24th best on the PGA Tour.
In pure results, McIlroy averages 73.50 on Saturdays, a full three shots higher than his Sunday average.
Those mysterious Saturday struggles, which could be linked to his confidence issues and the lack of trust with his new clubs, manifested themselves in both The Masters and the U.S. Open.
At Augusta National, Rory followed two decent opening rounds with a head-scratching seven-over 79 that eliminated him from any chance of winning his first green jacket. On Sunday, McIlroy was 10 shots better with a three-under 69.
Three months later at Marion, McIlroy was hanging around at three over after two rounds before a third-round 75 essentially ended his hopes for a second U.S. Open title.
When you add the sad Saturday scoring into Rory’s overall performance, he ranks 93rd on tour, not a terrible number considering just how far that third-round average drags it down.
Given that, if McIlroy can figure out what bothers him about Saturday, he might soon find Sunday afternoon a little more enjoyable than he has of late.
Things haven’t been so bad that Rory hasn't had his good moments, and, strangely enough, that is making his slump all the more frustrating.
During his winless run, McIlroy has had enough good rounds that he has actually accumulated four top-10 finishes this season.
Problem is, each one of those rounds has almost always been followed by a poor or simply average effort that placed Rory outside of true contention.
Given that inconsistency, only once this year—at the Valero Texas Open—has McIlroy really contended for a victory.
In several other events, McIlroy has seen strong starts fizzle before he can get a roll going.
At both the Wells Fargo Championship and The Players Championship in consecutive weeks this past spring, McIlroy opened with rounds in the 60s only to follow with flat efforts that moved him down rather than up the leaderboard.
In fact, it’s that inability to put together two or three solid rounds consecutively and not have utter blowups that has escalated Rory’s winless slump. One day it’s a balking driver, another it’s a cold putter. On the really bad days, it’s been mental preparation and focus.
Until he can find consistency with his swing, equipment and mind, it’s unlikely the Irishman will revisit the type of success he enjoyed in 2012 and 2011.
When trouble has arrived or opportunity has knocked, Rory’s short game and scrambling ability have let him down more often than can be overcome even by such an immensely gifted golfer.
Strictly by the numbers, Rory ranks 129th in strokes gained-putting, 112th in sand save percentage and a really ugly 165th in scrambling.
What those statistics ultimately mean is Rory has a difficult time saving strokes and avoiding big numbers when he finds trouble off the tee or on his approach shots.
From greenside bunkers, he is getting up and down only half the time, and from inside 30 yards from the green, he has scrambled successfully only 25 percent of the time.
Likewise, when things are going well from the tee and the fairway, Rory is missing too many opportunities to capitalize. Despite ranking 15th on tour in greens in regulation, he is just 63rd in putting.
As we have seen on tour this year, and certainly in the majors, putting is the crucial element to victory, and McIlroy is simply letting too many opportunities go wanting with his relatively cold putter.
The length and accuracy have by and large been there for Rory, but the short game has not, and that is causing him to come up short time and time again in 2013.
Even the greatest players can struggle from time to time with confidence, and McIlroy is no different.
A struggling swing, new and uncomfortable golf clubs and a deepening slump understandably have had an impact on Rory's psyche during the past seven months.
On a couple of occasions, McIlroy’s lack of confidence and troubled mental approach to the game have manifested in actions and comments.
McIlroy was having a particularly awful second round at the Honda Classic when he decided to walk off the course before completing the ninth hole.
Rory had just hit a shot into the water and was already seven over par through eight holes before he cried no mas, picked up his ball and went on home, citing a toothache. McIlroy would later admit he reacted in frustration to the state of his game and made apologies for the unfortunate decision to walk.
The action, however, provided a great deal of insight into just how much the 24-year-old was struggling with his game, and while nothing like that has happened since, there are continued signs that he is still fighting himself mentally.
Just a couple of weeks ago at the Irish Open, a British Open tuneup for McIlroy, the Irishman opened with a disappointing two-over 74 and admitted following the round that he was “feeling a bit lost,” per Will Gray of GolfChannel.com. McIlroy only managed to improve by two shots the following day and missed his second straight European Tour cut.
His play at the Carton House Golf Club gives little reason to think McIlroy is getting close to getting his confidence issues cleared up, and with the British Open looming a week away at the difficult Muirfield, the future looks bleak at best for Rory.
It’s not fair to blame Rory’s switch to The Swoosh for his entire 2013 struggles. That said, it has to be assumed that the change in equipment he consummated with Nike in early January is at the very least the root of the evils McIlroy has endured the past seven months.
Prior to the $200 million switch from Titleist to Nike, McIlroy was not only the top-ranked golfer in the world, but he was also the sport’s unrivaled rising star, having just won the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.
That runaway victory complemented Rory’s equally easy 2011 U.S. Open triumph at Congressional Golf Club, giving him two majors before the age of 24. That success also made for significant expectations for the 2013 season.
Heading into next week’s British Open, however, not even the mighty marketing noise of Nike can drown out the thud that has been McIlroy’s winless season to date with those new clubs.
The former world No. 1 has really only threatened to win once, struggled in both The Masters and the U.S. Open and can’t seem to find consistency with the new clubs from one round to the next.
Almost a month ago at Merion, McIlroy's frustration with the clubs and his game manifested itself into some on-course damage to his wedge during the final round. Rory bent the club after finding the water on the 11th hole, providing a signature moment in his rough relationship with the Nike clubs.
Bottom line, a significant difference between Rory 2012 and the present-day version of the talented golfer is the clubs he brings to the course every day.
For whatever reason, the comfort level has not come, and until it does, the talented Irishman will continue to scuffle and see great expectations at the moment go unfulfilled.