Return of the Champions: Defending HSBC Champion Ian Poulter is joined by Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Jason Dufner on the rooftop of The Peninsula Hotel, Shanghai, for the official launch of this year’s event. Credit: HSBC/Getty ImagesIrish golf is rightly proud of its four living major champions and the seven majors that Pádraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke have gleaned over the last six years.

By those high standards, 2013 has been a lean year for the men in green and while McDowell won twice in Europe and once in the US and Michael Hoey took his tally of European Tour wins to four at the low key Russian Open, there has been little to write home about this year.

McIlroy’s messy divorce from his management company exacerbated his struggles to conquer not just his new equipment but also to bear the weight of expectation that comes with being world No 1 and a two-time major winner by the age of 23.

There have been signs of late, especially in Monday’s exhibition match win over Tiger Woods, that McIlroy is close to emerging from a long, dark tunnel with his golf game.

As Woods told Reuters on Monday: “He is playing better and swinging a lot better. You can see that some of the stuff he and his coach are working on are starting to come together. 

[Highlights of the Match at Mission Hills between McIlroy and Woods]

“He’s starting to put together a few good rounds, now he just has to make a few more putts. I can definitely see him winning sometime this year because his game has come around.”

McIlroy also feels that he’s ready to finally concentrate fully on doing what he does best and with four events still to play this season, he doesn’t rule out a win.

In fact, he believes he’s more likely to win this week’s WGC-HSBC Champions than fail to make enough cash to guarantee his place in the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.

“It’s a sort of make-or-break week,” the world No 6 told reporters in Shanghai. “If I don’t play good enough here then there’s a good chance I won’t play in Dubai. But I think there’s a bigger chance of me winning this tournament than not playing Dubai, I feel.

“I’m looking forward to going out there and playing well.  I feel like I’m capable of winning this golf tournament.  I feel like my game’s coming together nicely and if I keep giving myself chances on the greens, and then just try to hole a few more.”

On his performance at Lake Malaren, McIlroy added: “I worked a little bit on my pace putting and reading the greens better. I threw a lot of shots away the last couple of weeks with three-putts, which you just shouldn’t do. If I can get that out of my game it will take a bit of pressure off.”

Committing to making Palm Beach Gardens his permanent home is a good move but McIlroy will undoubtedly enjoy Christmas there far more if he can win one of his last four events - this week’s WGC-HSBC Champions, the DP World Tour Championship (if, as seem likely, he qualifies), the Australian Open or Tiger Woods’ end-of-season World Challenge.

Woods and McIlroy have become more friendly than ever given that they live near each other in Florida, practice occasionally at the same course and often play practice rounds before tournaments. 

In fact, the Co Down man had no problem weighing hin heavily behind Woods on Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee’s recent cheating slur aimed at the 14-time major winner.

“Yeah, I think Brandel was completely wrong,” McIlroy said, before hinting strongly that the Golf Channel should take some sort of disciplinary action against Chamblee, even though he used a colun rather than the tv channel to defame Woods. 

“I don’t think he has the authority to say anything like that about Tiger Woods. People wouldn’t know who Brandel Chamblee was if it wasn’t for Tiger Woods, so I am completely against what he said and I think he should be dealt with in the right way.”

What McIlroy sees in Harrington is another thing and when complaining to Woods that the Dubliner was painfully slow in the final round of the BMW Masters at Lake Malaren last Sunday, he did make an excuse for his fellow major winning but insisting that he’s just “not comfortable.”

Still, Harrington showed encouraging signs in China that his short game and putting are coming back and providing the his not overtaken in the money list this week, he’ll have another chance to show his improvement at next week’s Turkish Airlines Open.

He will need a decent week just to qualify for the season-ending DP World Tour Championship but he sounded more encouraged than ever in his latest blog post.

After beginning with the inevitable “it was a disappointing end to my week” in his description of his share of 27th with McIlroy, he added that it was “probably as bad as I could have finished.”

Blaming his slow pace of play in the final round on the “bedlam” caused by fans taking pictures of McIlroy and his inability to block out the distractions, the 42-year old was truly disappointed that he did not even contend having put himself in position to challenge for the lead in the third round.

On the plus side, he was second for putting and drove the ball well:

“I played the majority of my week nicely, hitting the ball strong off the tee which I haven’t done for a while.  I hit a lot of good iron shots but the thing that I got the most enjoyment out of was my chipping and putting.  

“I felt good chipping - the tip that Brett Rumford gave me at Crans has worked great and I am getting my confidence back.  My putting is also feeling good again.  

“Considering the way I played it was very disappointing to only finish in a tie for 27.  I could have locked up the Race to Dubai this week but not only that I should have given myself a chance to win.  However, it just wasn’t to be.”

It’s been that kind of season for Irish golf in the really big events and both McDowell and McIlroy will be hoping to shine at Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai.

With no Irishmen qualifying for the Dubai Festival City Challenge Tour Grand Final hosted by Al Badia Golf Club, all eyes will be on the 12 Irish competitors who tee it up at the Second Stage of the European Tour Qualifying School in Spain from Saturday.

European Tour, Second Qualifying Stage - Nov 2-5 

Las Colinas Golf & Country Club
Stephen GRANT The Heritage, Ireland; Niall KEARNEY Royal Dublin/ Team Ireland; Brendan McCARROLL Team Ireland; Ruaidhri MCGEE Rosapenna; Damian MOONEY Ballyliffin GC; David RAWLUK The Island GC.

Campo de Golf El Saler, Valencia
Alan DUNBAR Team Ireland; John-Daniel GUINEY Ballybunion GC; Colm MORIARTY Glasson Golf Hotel & CC; Kevin PHELAN

Lumine Golf & Beach Club, Tarragona
Dermot MCELROY (AM) Ballymena GC

Valle Romano Golf, Estepona, Málaga
Gareth SHAW Team Ireland.