In the latter stages of what has been a disappointing 2013 golf season, Rory McIlroy's recent play is a sign that things are looking up for the 24-year-old, two-time major champion.
McIlroy's one-shot victory over Tiger Woods in China's much-ballyhooed "Match at Mission Hills" this past week produced more than just bragging rights—and a lucrative pay day—in an otherwise meaningless exhibition match between two of the game's most popular players.
On the lengthy Blackstone Course at Mission Hills, McIlroy walked away with a reported $1.5 million, via The Telegraph's James Corrigan, and a shot of increased confidence after firing an impressive six-under-par 67 total that included four birdies and an eagle in the final seven holes.
McIlroy's win in Haikou wasn't a one-round wonder, however. He has been trending in this direction with on-again, off-again quality rounds of golf since a T-8 finish at the PGA Championship back in early August.
During the FedExCup Playoffs this year, McIlroy fired a 2nd Round 65 at The Barclays, a 3rd Round 64 at the Deutsche Bank Championship and matching weekend rounds of 68 at the BMW Championship. He finished second at the Korea Open last week and after two rounds at the WGC-HSBC Champions event, McIlroy was near the lead with scores of 65 and 72, calling his seven-under-par score Thursday "one of the best rounds I've played this season," according to the BBC.
"I've seen a lot of promising signs over the past few weeks in practice and also in competitive play," McIlroy said, via Associated Press writer Bernie McGuire for the Huffington Post. "I still have four tournaments left until the end of the season and I would love to finish 2013 strongly and get a little bit of momentum going into next season. But I think as I showed out there, I'm hitting the ball well."
Coming off more than seven months of incredibly frustrating golf, with overwhelmingly high expectations, McIlroy has seemingly "found himself" once again, late in the year, with improved results.
It's evident things are headed in the right direction for the former world No. 1 and the carryover into 2014 will be significant.
When McIlroy began his 2013 season, the primary area of focus, at least from the general public's perspective, was the equipment change.
According to an Associated Press story, McIlroy inked a $200 million deal with Nike Golf that, aside from the financial gain, raised the question: If it isn't broken, why fix it? After all, he was coming off a four-win PGA Tour season that was highlighted by his second major victory at the PGA Championship—while playing Titleist clubs and a Titleist ball.
Enter Nike—with an offer he couldn't refuse—and that seemed to be where his troubles began in a season that also included management woes and the perceived trials and tribulations accompanying his long-distance relationship with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.
Personal and business matters aside, however, it appears McIlroy has found the right formula for success after close to a year of tinkering with and tweaking his golf equipment.
Among the recent additions to his Nike bag: a new prototype ball and driver.
The results are speaking for themselves. In an interview on Mission Hills China's Facebook, however, McIlroy did not hesitate to voice his enthusiastic approval of the new gear, saying the ball is softer, with more spin, yet "still goes as far as what I'm used to, if not farther." He noted, too, that his Covert 2.0 driver has a larger head shape, describing it as "more forgiving."
McIlroy's work ethic has also been an important factor in his improvement, having spent several weeks this fall at his home in Northern Ireland practicing with swing coach Michael Bannon. Their ongoing collaboration, along with his ability to persevere during a winless season, has McIlroy headed in the right direction.
"I've tried to stay patient the entire season, and I know that if I believe that I'm working on the right things and I am working on the right things, then things will start to fall into place sooner or later," McIlroy said during a recent press conference, via ASAP Sports.
"It's obviously frustrating when you've had a couple of seasons previous where you have had success, and not being able to emulate that—there's times where you definitely get frustrated. I think that the best way to approach it is to stay patient and not to force the issue too much. And that's what I've sort of tried to do. I've tried to stay as patient as possible."
Whatever the trouble was in 2013—or whatever combination of problems led to his poor play—McIlroy is re-establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with on the golf course heading into the new year.