When a season begins with an Irishman becoming the first golfer from these shores to be named as Ryder Cup captain, only a major win can trump news of that magnitude. It didn’t happen in the grand slam events for Ireland’s usual suspects which means that 2013 will go down as the year, with respect to Graeme McDowell’s three worldwide wins and mid-season victories for Michael Hoey and Simon Thornton, that Paul McGinley finally broke the mould.
Why Ireland had never had the honour of the Ryder Cup captaincy is a debate for another day but so fraught was the behind-the-scenes politicking for the coveted job — described as almost “unseemly” by the Tour’s Chief Executive - that changes have been made in the selection process for future European skippers.
In the end, McGinley saw off opposition, first from Darren Clarke and then by 2010 skipper Colin Montgomerie to be named captain on January 15. His appointment for the matches at Gleneagles next September came just 24 hours after world number one McIlroy was unveiled as a Nike player for what we later learned was a $20 million a year, five-year deal.
That those figures only emerged because of legal action by McIlroy against his agents former Horizon Sports Management says it all about the Holywood star’s annus horribilis. Who could have guessed that the player who swept all before him in 2012, counting a second major championship among his five wins en route to both money titles as well as Player of the Year honours on both sides of the pond, would make headlines only for swing problems, poor results and an off course break up with his management company.
It all started with dry ice and lasers at his Nike unveiling in Abu Dhabi - an event that made as many headlines for his endorsement of the new clubs as it did for his unfettered support for McGinley as skipper.
“It's been a relatively easy process,'' McIlroy said of his transition from Titleist to Nike clubs. "I feel like I've transitioned seamlessly from one thing to another. I'm really comfortable with all of the clubs. I'm getting more distance out of the driver and the ball. I'm comfortable with the irons, everything has fallen into place. I'm excited to put the clubs in play.”
It wasn’t long before we discovered that all was not quite right in McIlroy’s world. He struggled with his new Nike driver and putter and missed the cut in Abu Dhabi. He fatally opted to skip the Dubai Desert Classic and a few weeks later lost to pal Shane Lowry in the first round of the Accenture Match Play in Arizona. Under-golfed and over-wrought, things went downhill from there with the low point arguably coming in early March, when he walked off the course after completing just eight holes of his second round in the Honda Classic, where he was defending champion.
He claimed he was not in a good place mentally, later blamed toothache and eventually apologised for simply “seeing red” when things went pear-shaped. As the bust up with Horizon Sports Management came to light later in the year, he admitted that all his off-course problems took their toll and exacerbated his technical headaches.
Having mysteriously signed a three-year contract extension with Horizon, McIlroy informed them on April 24 that he was setting up his own management company with family, friends and confidants. Two Horizon employees joined the new team but nothing changed on the course. As news of his split with Horizon broke in May, his game remained in the deep freeze.
Finding a Nike driver that suited him was proving difficult and having missed the the BWM PGA and the Memorial, he played four rounds at the US Open but made headlines for mangling a club in frustration. At the Irish Open a few weeks later, he missed the cut before sinking to his lowest ebb at The Open where he shot a 79 on Thursday. At one point in the round, he putted into a bunker at the 15th. "That was so brain-dead," he said. "Seriously, I feel I've been walking around like that for the last couple of months."
As the year wore on, McIlroy slowly came back to life. Eighth in the US PGA, he played well in fits and starts but failed to progress to the Tour Championship in the FedEx Cup playoffs despite driving the ball far better with a new Nike prototype driver. Henrik Stenson took the $10m bonus and rubber-stamped his status as arguably the best player in the world this year but winning the Race to Dubai thanks to a majestic performance en route to victory in the DP World Tour Championship.
“Honestly, I think I've learned a lot of things this year,” McIlroy said after finishing fifth behind the Swede. “It's been a learning year. It's been a very transitional year, a lot of stuff going on, new equipment, a few things off course that haven't really helped either. But for the most part, I'm just really happy that my game is back where I want it to be and that's all I really care about.”
Those off-course things included the setting up for Rory McIlroy Inc - with Dublin businessman and former Horizon director of strategy Donal Casey at its helm - and the simultaneous commencement of legal action against Horizon. The Dublin management group counter-sued in late November and bar an out-of-court settlement, the case will be heard in the Commercial Court next October.
If all that wasn’t enough, McIlroy and Nike are also being sued in California by his former sponsor Oakley for breach of contract. Ironically, Horizon’s founder Conor Ridge is McIlroy’s star witness in that case before it was settled out of court.
Buoyed by a late season win over Adam Scott in the Australian Open, McIlroy fell to just sixth in the world rankings with his performance in the Majors his biggest disappointment - Masters (tied 25th behind Adam Scott), US Open (tied 41st), The Open (missed cut) and the US PGA (tied eighth behind Jason Dufner).
It wasn’t much better for pal McDowell in the four biggest events in the game as he missed the cut at Augusta National and Merion and tied for 58th behind Phil Mickelson in the Open before rallying to share 12th in the US PGA. But at least he had the satisfaction of winning three times around the world - the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head, the Volvo World Match Play in Bulgaria and the Alstom Open de France near Paris.
That those three wins came in a three month period that also featured five missed cuts says it all about McDowell’s year. When he was good, he was very good but when he was poor, he was nowhere.
The Ulsterman went into the Race to Dubai’s Final Series with a chance fo catching Stenson but ended up fourth in the end and reflecting on his season in the events that really matter to him — the majors.
“Just a disappointing year,” he said, comparing his year to 2012, when he finished in the top 12 in all four. “To take the four majors holistically, for me, it's a bad performance. It's difficult to prime yourself to come and perform at these, they're such a tough test.
“I won the RBC Heritage the week after the Masters and (Open de France) two weeks after the US Open; sometimes you're over-prepared and maybe put a little too much expectation on yourself and when you do let the pressure valve release you play great the week after or two weeks after. It's hard. Great season last year in the majors, tough one this year but I wouldn't swap this season for last year. I've enjoyed this year overall.”
While Lowry started the year ranked 52nd in the world and ended it outside the top 70, he still regards 2013 as positive season.
“It is sort of like slow and steady wins the race,” he said of his progress as a professional. “I am very happy with the way I am going. I am a fairly easygoing type of fella and happy to be out here competing and I want to do well. I get frustrated at times that I could do better than I do but if I look at it in that sort of way, my four years have been four years of progression every year.”
An early season sojourn in the US didn't work out but he was pleased with the way he performed in the Open (32nd) and the US PGA (57th) and believes that when he does make the world’s Top-50, he will be there for some time.
As he said after the final major of the season at Oak Hill: “I am not blowing my own trumpet here or anything but there are not many players in that Top-50 in the world I feel like are better than me. I just need a couple of breaks here and there to get myself in there and I guarantee you I won’t be moving out of it.”
Lowry has now overtaken Harrington as the top-ranked golfer from the Republic of Ireland and the three-time major winner, who fell out of the world’s top 100 this year for the first time in 14 years, ended the year admitting he was burnt out and in need of a long winter break.
Having failed to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs or the European Tour’s season-ending DP World Tour Championship, he was left to reflect on a season that saw him turn to the belly putter in frustration in May having always publicly declared his opposition to the anchored stroke.
His season was marred not only by a case of the putting yips and poor chipping but also by breaking his driver early in the year. As a result, he never had any real confidence and when he did play well, his putting prevented him from stacking up enough birdies to offset the inevitable mistakes.
“I’ve had a very poor year, there is no doubt about it,” Harrington said. “I have under-performed. A few things didn’t work out early in the year. I struggled with my wedges and broke a driver that took a few months to replace. But I do feel that I am playing really well and if it was up to me, I’d certainly back myself.”
With his world ranking plummeting, Harrington will struggle to make the Ryder Cup team as he’s not qualified for the Masters or any of the big World Golf Championship events in 2014.
He admits he will struggle to fulfil his 15-event commitment to the PGA Tour. More worryingly, he sounds resigned to his fate.
“I have changed as a person,” Harrington said on the Late Late Show in October. “I have more experience and with that comes a lot of confidence. But I have lost the fear and the intensity because I know what is going to happen. There is no mystery about my game, no innocence about my game. I have seen it all before sort of thing.
“I show all the symptoms of somebody who is burnt out and I have to figure out a way of managing that — the new Pádraig Harrington, rather than the old one.
“Burned out sounds strong but I know Jack Nicklaus said his career would come to an end when he stopped having butterflies in the morning. On a Thursday morning I am not as excited or as scared as I was before. Why? Because I have done it before. I have seen it all before. I am a cynical person…. it comes with experience.
“At 42 years of age, I am a different person that I was when I was 24. There is a sense of completion when you have won majors. My destiny doesn’t depend on me turning around and playing well tomorrow. I feel I have already done what I needed to do in the game of golf and from now on is a bonus.
“I definitely peaked in 2007 and 2008 but the key for me is that I definitely feel I can peak again. But I have to do it in a different way. There isn’t the same innocence in me. It’s not [sad]. It is what it is. I would love to be a young, naive kid going out there with the excitement that the tour brings but that’s not the way it is.”
He later added: "Yes, I have far exceeded what I thought I would do in golf. I am motivated to go on and do more. But the person I am is the guy who has done this. And because I have done it, I don’t have the feelings of anticipation and the butterflies. Yeah, I want to win more majors. If I didn’t win any more majors, I still won three majors. I am just making a statement. I am still motivated to win more and win more majors.”
As for his hopes of making McGinley’s Ryder Cup team, he said: “It will be tough to make his team. With where I am in the world rankings, I will have to have an exceptional year from my position.”
As for the rest of the Irish on tour, it was a disappointing season for all by Simon Thornton, who was contemplating giving up the game before he won his maiden European Tour title at Saint Omer in June, and Michael Hoey, whose win in the M2M Russian Open was his fifth on tour.
Damien McGrane and Gareth Maybin clinched big finishes at crucial times to stave off any worries about keeping their tour cards, finishing 82nd and 95th in the Race to Dubai respectively while Hoey’s final ranking of 92nd showed that he still struggles for consistency.
Thornton had a poor Challenge Tour card when he started the year but can now plan a full 2014 schedule thanks to his win on Father’s Day.
“What happens now with this category is fantastic, it’s mad how things have changed,” said Thornton, who went on to finish 128th in the Race to Dubai after just 11 starts. “It’s surreal.”
After going on to contend in Italy and Portugal in the latter half of the season, Thornton knows he has the game to become an established tour player.
“I was very close to giving it up,” said Thornton, whose gesture of dedicating his playoff victory in Saint Omer to his late father was echoed by Justin Rose in the US Open at Merion a few hours later.
“I know we all go through it, maybe not of giving up the game, but we all far out of love with it at times. Everybody goes to work and hates their days but it got to a stage where I was hating every day.
“It hit me the winter before last. It was almost, ‘that’s enough for me’ kind of thing. I started looking for a few jobs and couldn’t find anything over the winter and thought I will play anyway and see what happens.
“I ended up speaking to Gary Murphy down here at Carton House two weeks ago at the Ronnie Whelan Charity Day and I said, ‘You know what Murf, I am ready for going.’ Two weeks later you win. Mad.
“I am exempt now [until the end of 2014], which is something I have never had before I can pick and choose what events I want to play. I’ve had a couple of tour cards before but this is a different category. To be able to plan is huge. To be able to plan what I want to do. I’ve never even been close to that before. This is different.”
Darren Clarke came close to breaking his victory drought, which dates back to the 2011 Open win, when he finished joint second behind stablemate Charl Schwartzel in OneAsia Tour’s Nanshan China Masters in October.
Apart from that it was a year of more frustration than satisfaction, especially on the greens, but he has taken the decision to take up his PGA Tour card for 2014, one of the bonuses of his Open win.
As for Peter Lawrie and David Higgins, they ended up battling for their cards in the final event of the season in Australia but while the Dubliner survived thanks to a gutsy share of 18th in the Perth International, Higgins lost his by €12,999 and ended up failing to regain it at the European Tour Qualifying School.
“I’m just glad it’s over to be totally honest with you,” said an emotional Lawrie, who found himself in trouble when he missed six cuts in a row late in the season before recovering in Perth. “I’ve never felt so much pressure as the last eight weeks: can’t sleep, can’t eat properly, it’s just horrendous. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”
The Q-School did have a silver lining for Ireland in the shape of 23 year old Waterford man Kevin Phelan, who won the 17th card thanks to sensational final round 69.
Ruaidhri McGee won a Challenge Tour card by making the cut at Q-School and will join Lurgan’s Gareth Shaw on the second tier tour next year. Shaw ended up 71st in the Challenge Tour rankings having come close to winning his European Tour card on the strength of invitations.
After finishing a brilliant fifth in the Irish Open at Carton House, he took his season’s earnings over €100,000 by taking joint 13th in the Open de France the following week. In the end he didn’t make enough cash from a further two starts to break into the Top 110 who earned full European Tour cards for 2014. Disappointingly, he failed to make it to the Final Stage of Q-School, where 20-year old amateur Dermot McElroy played four rounds to leave himself with a decision to make on his future.
McElroy, who was 10th on his Challenge Tour debut in the Northern Ireland Open Challenge, eventually decided to remain amateur for the first half of the 2014 season with tentative plans to turn professional after the British Amateur Championship at Royal Portrush.
He will certainly have a good role model in 28-year old Shaw, whose summer flourish proved that his highly professional approach is beginning to pay dividends.