Former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy struggled through an up-and-down (OK, mostly down) year in 2013, save for a late-season resurgence that saw him hold off Masters champion Adam Scott to win the Australian Open.
So how did it go south so fast? And what will his victory do for him in the coming year?
Our scribes dive into those topics and more in the latest edition of Four-Ball.
1. When did you know Rory's season was going downhill fast?
Michael Collins, ESPN.com senior golf analyst: Rory's year went into crisis mode at the Honda Classic when he just walked off the course (because his tooth hurt so badly). He looked like a guy who was at the end of his rope when it came to golf. You cannot be the best at your job if you hate going to work.
Farrell Evans, ESPN.com senior golf writer: In March, when McIlroy withdrew halfway through his second round at the Honda Classic. Initially he blamed a nagging toothache for his abrupt departure during what was tough scoring day for him, but he later admitted the pressure was taking a toll on his psyche. It was very easy to see from that episode that he was not headed for a great season.
Bob Harig, ESPN.com senior golf writer: When he walked off the course at the Honda Classic following just nine holes of the second round. He had missed the cut in Abu Dhabi, was bounced from the first round of the WGC-Match Play and now was quitting in just his third tournament of the year, giving a flimsy excuse in the process. All of it looked bad and was an ominous sign for the year ahead.
Kevin Maguire, ESPN.com senior golf editor: Once questions arose about his "wisdom tooth" pain during the Honda Classic that saw him walk off the course in the middle of the second round, it was safe to say things went from bad to worse. For all the talk of equipment issues, management changes and more, that Friday in Florida was a harbinger of things to come for the Northern Irishman.
2. Bigger issue with Rory's game in 2013, his clubs or his confidence?
Collins: The biggest issue with Rory's game (and I've been saying it from the beginning) was the golf ball. When the ball doesn't do what you expect or feel, then everything starts breaking down, starting with confidence. He got a new golf ball and won less than a month later.
Evans: His lack of confidence in the equipment overhaul was a contributing factor to his mediocre play for most of 2013. But the pressure to live up to his billing as the No. 1 player in the world and the greatest challenger to Tiger Woods were probably the most significant factors to his struggles during the year.
Harig: His confidence. Now perhaps his change in clubs had an indirect effect, but the club change has always seemed overblown. McIlroy had plenty of time to adjust, plenty of time to work with the new clubs as the year wore on. It was more about a flaw in his swing that he had trouble correcting. That kept him from scoring, which in turn led to his issues.
Maguire: Confidence. McIlroy's game mirrors that of Phil Mickelson much more than that of Woods with the Northern Irishman's see-saw performances on the course. When a golfer rises and sinks like that on a week-to-week basis, if things go south they can do so quickly. On the flip side, once McIlroy turns that corner, two or three wins in a month isn't out of the question, either.
3. How much will his off-the-course issues affect him in 2014?
Collins: None. You think Rory comes off the course and has to pore over lawsuit paperwork? Me either. The reason he pays attorneys and has a manager is so he can just play golf and sign the checks.
Evans: McIlroy is now very experienced with the distractions that come with his stature in the game. No matter what comes his way in the future, he will be better prepared to focus on his on-course responsibilities. He doesn't have a choice. His career depends on him handling distractions with care.
Harig: Well, it can't help. Who knows exactly how much money is at stake, but this is ugly, shocking stuff. McIlroy's agent, Horizon Sports, negotiated the big-money Nike deal and Rory signed an extension with the company just weeks before he was trying to get out of the contract. It has to be a troubling issue that will be on his mind as it waits to be resolved.
Maguire: We saw the toll it took on McIlroy in 2013 and I suspect it will impact him considerably in 2014. His experience dealing with these off-the-course issues in 2013 will help mitigate the damage on his game, but to say he has a clear mind would be a bit of hyperbole. Now, if everything gets settled with sponsors and management companies long before the October court date in Ireland, that could help rejuvenate McIlroy for sure.
4. What confidence, if any, does he take from his play at the end of 2013?
Collins: Be prepared for Rory to have a season similar to 2012. It could be a year with three to five wins (maybe even a major), at least 10 top-10s and a chance to win the Tour Championship/FedEx Cup. That's the confidence the win at the end of the year has given him.
Evans: The pressure starts anew at the Masters in April. The good play at the end of the year helped to salvage a tough year, but in McIlroy's elite world, the majors are the surest litmus test of confidence.
Harig: Lots. The victory over Scott at the Australian Open was a solid indication that things have turned around. It came after top-6 finishes in China and Dubai and perhaps most impressive was that he went head-to-head for the final 36 holes with Scott, who was attempting to win the Aussie Triple Crown. McIrloy intends to play more early in the season, and I'm betting he comes out much more focused and ready to play in 2014.
Maguire: Boatloads. The victory, of course, will make a huge difference, but more important was his consistent play the last couple of months of the year. If McIlroy can keep his game together like that, and build on it heading into 2014, we could be talking major opportunities for him next year.
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