Rory McIlroy

After a memorable 2012 season, which included a PGA Championship win and PGA player of the year honors, Rory McIlroy has struggled in 2013. Encouraged by his win last week in Australia, McIlroy says his game is starting to make a positive turn. (Matt King / Getty Images / November 30, 2013)

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.