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How Far Away Is Rory McIlroy from Returning to Elite Form?

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How Far Away Is Rory McIlroy from Returning to Elite Form?
Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

In one year, Rory McIlroy went from being the most heralded golfer to perhaps the most infamous, but that could all be behind him as he enters the 2014 season.

His dramatic and highly visible drop from first place in the world rankings in the beginning of 2013 to eighth place today has taken the golfing world by surprise.

Looking back over the past year, there were so many things that appeared to be wrong. He had issues with his new Nike equipment, his girlfriend, his management team, his worldwide fame and subsequently with his attitude. All of these things collided to adversely impact his game.

Had the boy wonder who won two majors by the age of 23 lost it? What’s more, what was ailing him and could he turn it around? Was he David Duval or Tiger Woods?

Oh, how cruel we can be to our superstars. And how quick we are to condemn them. For, as McIlroy enters 2014 season, there are signs that he has righted his ship and will look to once again become the force that made him as powerful as any golfer on the planet.

It may too early to pick out one moment or even one tournament as the turning point for McIlroy. But when he came from behind to beat Adam Scott at the Emirates Australian Open late last year, it signaled at least a momentum shift for the young Irishman.

Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
McIlroy walked off the Honda Classic in 2013

Until then, he had had a very spotty year to say the least. In fact, it was about as roller a coaster as one could ride. Of 16 events played on the PGA Tour, he scored in the top 10 only five times with only one second-place finish and no wins.

Still, he only missed one cut and had a highly unusual withdrawal from the Honda Classic, which he had won the year before.

At the time, he talked about not being in a good place “mentally.” Now, he says it marked the “lowest point” of 2013. In a very telling interview with Brian Wacker of PGATour.com, he noted:

I made a mistake walking off the course and disappointed not just myself. Golf can be a frustrating game and emotionally tough. What’s important, though, is that I’ve learned from that episode. I need to stay patient and play my way through the difficult patches.

That’s great to hear for golf fans and maybe less so for his competition who know what a healthy, happy McIlroy can bring to a golf course.

McIlroy is a winner through and through. He already has 11 professional victories, including six on the PGA tour, including the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship.

It is hard to say what was going on last year. We could point to his change in clubs to the new set of Nikes. He had to get used to them. No one is makes this change easily.

You need to give it time and reps. You need to experience it in pressure situations.

Overall, his driving and putting statistics didn’t change much from year to year. It may surprise you to learn that he ranked fifth in distance in both 2012 and 2013 and that he was actually better in 2013 in fairways hit (132nd to 156th), GIR (26th and 60th) and scramble percentage (33rd and 91st).

But he was less precise, ultimately putting himself in poor positions from which to score.

The game of golf is one of inches. In McIlroy’s case, he had been used to driving the ball both far and straight. His athletic ability was apparent from a very young age and separated him immediately from the pack.

However, just the smallest glitch can be enough to offset one’s game, especially at such a high level. Think of a great shooter in the NBA, like Stephen Curry. If he is off a millimeter, his game will suffer. But shooters shoot their way out of such cold spells.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

And that is what McIlroy has seemingly done. He had to work at getting used to his new clubs in order to regain the precision that brought him to the No. 1 position in the world.

Then there was the on-again, off-again thing with his girlfriend, tennis star Carol Wozniacki.

Onlookers pointed fingers at their tumultuous relationship as reason for McIlroy’s troubles on the course.

Living in a fishbowl is tough, Rory. Just ask the guy you are looking up at, Mr. Woods.

But that part of his life seems now settled as he and the Ms. Wozniacki have announced their engagement.

McIlroy has also taken control of his professional life by establishing his own management team, which he believes will provide him with greater control.

Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press
Rory looks at Tiger for inspiration on and off the course.

He has streamlined his very public life by forming Rory McIlroy, Inc. to handle his foundation and management duties.

McIlroy will have a chance to show what sort of change he has made when he faces a world-class field at the Honda Classic, which has the most competitive field this year. He will be playing in his own backyard at the PGA National Resort in Palm Gardens where he now resides.

So, he’s got that going for him.

Still, he may have wanted to get off to a better start when he played at the Accenture Match Play where he was unceremoniously ousted by Harris English in the second round.

The question remains as to just how well he will deal with the attention should he win another tournament, another major and even return to the No. 1 spot in the rankings. The last time around, he acted like a petulant child rather than a mature champion.

But a year of tough love can change a person.

As he told PGATour.com:

It did come up on me rather quickly. But too soon? It wasn’t as if I could put the brakes on playing well or hold back the No. 1 spot until I considered what it would mean. That said, being in the spotlight does take a bit of getting used to. I’m still learning to manage the level of attention, to be honest, in all its guises.  

Only 12 short months ago, he was the No. 1 player in the world. There is really no reason that he could not return to that position in the future.

When asked to compare 2014 with 2013, McIlroy told a pre-tournament press conference:

It's much more settled, I can just go about my business and play my golf. Everything is in a good place, the game is in good shape I feel. Compared to this time last year, it's so different. I don't have to go through any changes in equipment, don't have to answer the questions. It's also nice to be wearing a t-shirt, not have to wear any sweaters or mittens.

As he returns to form, McIlroy sits at the confluence of the old elite a la Tiger, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott and a new elite group of players led by Jordan Spieth and Jason Day.

Ultimately, McIlroy wants to be a contender again, so no matter who the competitor may be, he better watch out.

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