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Rory McIlroy almost lost his grip in 2013

Rory McIlroyTiger WoodsAdam ScottCaroline WozniackiAustralian OpenMasters Tournament

The tee shot soars across a cold morning sky, carrying down the left side of a long par-five, leaving Rory McIlroy a good look at the green.

It is a reminder of what he can do, the talent that once carried him to the top of his sport.

The young man from Northern Ireland follows with a decent second shot and a chip, then a lengthy putt for birdie on the fifth hole of Sherwood Country Club.

"I feel like for me to be happy," he says, "I need to play sort of pretty golf."

His game has looked slightly more attractive, his mood on the upswing, since he outdueled Adam Scott to win the Australian Open last week.

But at 13 strokes behind Tiger Woods going into Sunday's final round of the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge, he isn't going to add another title before the season ends. Nor is he likely to walk away from 2013 with fond memories.

There have been too many missed cuts and ugly scorecards. A long winless streak. His personal life dragged through the tabloid gutters.

All in all, a year to forget. As McIlroy says, "I'm happy this is the last event."

Woods, the host of this week's tournament, knows something about slumps.

"That's just part of playing golf," Woods says. "Try and get out as fast as you can."

::

There were no quick fixes for the 24-year-old McIlroy, who faced high expectations after a 2012 season in which he won four PGA Tour events — including the PGA Championship (his second major title) — captured the European Tour crown and reached No. 1 in the world rankings.

Heading into 2013, he expected to pick right up again.

But the new season began with a missed cut in Abu Dhabi and a tie for 33rd at the Match Play Championship. In March, after stumbling through the first eight holes of the second round at the Honda Classic, he walked off the course.

His initial explanation — a painful wisdom tooth — did not go over well. McIlroy apologized: "It wasn't the right thing to do. No matter how bad I was playing, I should have stayed out there."

Much was made of the fact that he had switched to new clubs and a new ball, signing with Nike for a reported $200 million to $250 million.

McIlroy acknowledged fighting through an adjustment period, but he now sees other reasons for troubles that deepened through summer.

Bad habits had crept into his swing, his upper and lower body falling out of sync. Just as important, he was struggling with the mental game.

"I'm very hard on myself," he says. "I feel like I'm emotionally connected to my golf game in terms of, if I play bad, I'll be in a bad mood."

And if he's in a bad mood, his game suffers.

"It's a whole sort of cycle," he says.

His results in the majors were particularly disheartening, with a tie for 25th at the Masters, a tie for 41st at the U.S. Open and another missed cut at the British.

"An equipment change is one thing," Graeme McDowell, his friend and countryman, said at the time. "But he looks like he's struggling technically to me."

Life wasn't any easier off the course.

As the season progressed, McIlroy split with his management company, the Dublin-based Horizon Sports, and the matter quickly headed for court.

"I've seen more lawyers' offices and more lawyers this year than I care to see in my entire life," he said.

His personal life caused further distraction.

McIlroy had been dating tennis star Caroline Wozniacki since 2011, their celebrity relationship generating frequent headlines. But the story turned sour in the spring when he finished in a tie for 57th at the Memorial and Wozniacki lost in the second round of the French Open.

A website ran charts suggesting that they were destroying each other's careers. No less than Gary Player chimed in, opining that McIlroy needed to "find the right wife."

Rumors of a split began to gain traction. The Irish Independent reported that he was upset because she had posted an unflattering photograph of him sleeping, his mouth wide open, on Twitter.

"Just because I have a bad day on the golf course and Caroline loses a match in Malaysia, it doesn't mean that we're breaking up," he said. "I'd rather keep my private life as private as possible."

It was an unusual pronouncement from a rare breed of star athlete who has never ducked questions. The disappointment and scrutiny were taking their toll.

"I still feel like I'm open and I'm accessible," he said this week, adding later: "It's the first year I've really had that much criticism."

::

The turnaround began quietly, subtly.

First came a top-10 finish at the HSBC Champions in Shanghai, then another in Dubai. Some of those swing flaws were being corrected.

"I knew that my game was coming around," McIlroy says. "And that was the most important thing."

To put his struggles into perspective, he finished the year at No. 6 in the world. But that victory in Sydney felt essential, an 18th-hole birdie sealing the victory over a red-hot Scott.

"It was good to see him win," Woods says. "Especially with how it all unfolded."

If nothing else, McIlroy now believes he has learned valuable lessons about dealing with the hype and being a little more protective of his time. Also, not taking losses so personally.

Old mistakes, he hopes, will not be repeated.

"I'm just going to keep on top of my mechanics a little more, make sure that when I come out to the new season, there's nothing that has to be worked on that much," he says.

So, after this weekend, after a short vacation in Florida, McIlroy plans to keep polishing his game through the off-season. He also figures to enjoy some time out of the spotlight.

No more headlines. No questions to answer.

As he puts it, "I need a break."

david.wharton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesWharton

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Rory McIlroyTiger WoodsAdam ScottCaroline WozniackiAustralian OpenMasters Tournament
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