The Irish optimist's guide to 2014

Rory McIlroy beats Tiger Woods at Mission Hills in October. Will they meet with a major on the line in 2014? Picture: Eoin Clarke / www.golffile.ie

Rory McIlroy beats Tiger Woods at Mission Hills in October. Will they meet with a major on the line in 2014? Picture: Eoin Clarke / www.golffile.ie

What does 2014 hold in store for Irish golf? We look into our crystal ball to see what the future might hold for Paul McGinley, Rory McIlroy, Pádraig Harrington and the rest. It could all go horribly wrong, of course, but what better time for some unbridled optimism than the New Year's Eve.

Can Rory McIlroy regain the world No 1 ranking in 2014? Picture: Stuart Adams / www.golffile.ie

Can Rory McIlroy regain the world No 1 ranking in 2014? Picture: Stuart Adams / www.golffile.ie

Rory McIlroy 

Nobody enjoyed watching McIlroy struggle in 2013. All but unbeatable when at his best and with a not wholly convincing Tiger Woods still searching for the four major wins he needs to match Jack Nicklaus' haul of 18, it would be fascinating to see them battle for a major somewhere. One can only hope that McIlroy's off-course legal battle with his former management company does not remain an issue and we can see the Holywood star repeat the stellar play that saw him become world No 1 in 2012. Coping with the many pressures that come with being one of the game's top players remains his biggest challenge. Prediction: Masters champion after a sudden-death play-off with Woods [on the 10th].

European captain Paul McGinley needs Rory McIlroy in top form for the Ryder Cup. Picture: Fran Caffrey / www.golffile.ie

European captain Paul McGinley needs Rory McIlroy in top form for the Ryder Cup. Picture: Fran Caffrey / www.golffile.ie

Paul McGinley

After 39 Ryder Cup matches under 23 different captains, Europe decided to finally hand the honour to an Irishman for 2014. Paul McGinley will lead the troops at Gleneagles but after an utterly placid year since his appointment last January, one wonders how long we will have to wait before the traditional Ryder Cup controversy stories start to flow. The selection of assistant captains is unlikely to ruffle too many feathers, which leaves the thorny question of McGinley's three wildcards. Given his impeccable performance so far, we're betting the Dubliner will navigate this way through potentially choppy waters and arrive in Scotland looking strong. Given how close the matches have been in recent years and the strength of the current USA squad, small details will decide the outcome. Overthinking the captaincy can lead to problems but we expect McGinley to play his cards well. Prediction: Winning Ryder Cup captain.

Pádraig Harrington

Pádraig Harrington needs to see his lines clearly in 2014. Pictured at the US Open by Eoin Clarke / www.golffile.ie

Pádraig Harrington needs to see his lines clearly in 2014. Pictured at the US Open by Eoin Clarke / www.golffile.ie

Not a lot has changed in Pádraig Harrington's world in the last 12 months bar his world ranking, which has slipped from 59th to 131st. Set to turn 43 next August, his fate in 2014 will almost certainly be decided by his success with the putter, not to mention the strength of his short game. If he fails to win big early in the season and qualify for the Masters and the US Open, it could be another tough campaign for Ireland's three-time major winner.  We prefer to look on the bright side. Prediction: Irish Open champion at Fota Island.

Graeme McDowell in full flow with the driver at the Open de France. Picture: David Lloyd / www.golffile.ie

Graeme McDowell in full flow with the driver at the Open de France. Picture: David Lloyd / www.golffile.ie

Graeme McDowell

Three wins masked a disappointing year for the Rathmore man in the majors. Expect him to challenge at least once next summer - Hoylake, Pinehurst and Valhalla should all suit his game, especially if he regains his consistency off the tee. Prediction: World's Top-5 by year's end and another memorable Ryder Cup.

Darren Clarke

The 2013 season was largely a write off for Clarke, who has taken up his PGA Tour card again. Having achieved the Holy Grail of a major win, his determination is admirable. Like Harrington, he needs to take his short game and putting up a notch to become a contender again, especially on courses that don't require massive power. Prediction: World ranking resurgence for the world No 296.

Kevin Phelan lines up a putt at the Nelson Mandela Championship. Picture: David Lloyd / www.golffile.ie

Ireland's European Tour brigade

Wins for Graeme McDowell, Michael Hoey and Simon Thornton were the highlights of 2103 but after watching Peter Lawrie, Damien McGrane and Gareth Maybin all struggle for consistency, one can only hope for better in 2014. Lawrie in particular will be keen to regain his driving accuracy. The addition of Kevin Phelan to the ranks is a hugely positive one. Prediction: Kevin Phelan to win Rookie of the Year.

Shane Lowry has big plans for 2014. Pictured before the first round of the 2013 BMW Masters at Lake Malaren by Eoin Clarke / www.golffile.ie

Shane Lowry has big plans for 2014. Pictured before the first round of the 2013 BMW Masters at Lake Malaren by Eoin Clarke / www.golffile.ie

Shane Lowry

The Clara man deserves special mention. The 2013 season looks disappointing on paper, especially his fall from 52nd to 76th in the world when a move into the Top-50 and a run at Ryder Cup qualification looked possible. Victory in the Alfred Dunhill Links could have changed everything. His decision to work harder on injury prevention and fitness will serve him well in his fifth full season on tour, providing he doesn't put himself under too much. Prediction:  A third European Tour win looks odds on for the Offaly man.

The second tier

Gareth Shaw's brilliant performances in the Irish Open and the Open de France did not earn him a European Tour card. Nevertheless, we expect the Lurgan man to make a move on the Challenge Tour in 2014, where he will be joined by the talented Ruaidhri McGee. We will also be eagerly looking out for players such as Niall Kearney, Alan Dunbar and Paul Cutler, as well as Alps Tour players Simon Ward, Brian Casey, Richard Kilpatrick, Stephen Grant and Brendan McCarroll. 

Given the attrition rate in pro golf, the likes of Irish PGA champion Mick McGeady, Tim Rice, Neil O Briain, David Rawluk, Cian Curley and Colm Moriarty will all be looking for a win on the EuroPro Tour while globetrotters such as Niall Turner or Seamus Power will have similar sentiments in Asia and the US. Prediction: Three Irish golfers to win European Tour cards at the Q-School.

Faithlegg's Robin Dawson tees off on the 10th in the quarter-finals of the 2013 West of Ireland Championship at Co Sligo, Rosses Point.  Picture: Jenny Matthews / www.golffile.ie

Faithlegg's Robin Dawson tees off on the 10th in the quarter-finals of the 2013 West of Ireland Championship at Co Sligo, Rosses Point.  Picture: Jenny Matthews / www.golffile.ie

Amateur scene

We'd love to see top class fields for the South at Lahinch and the Close at Seapoint but if that doesn't happen we'll settle for a first Irish win in the Home Internationals or the European Team Championships since 2008.

With Gavin Moynihan joining the likes of Chris Selfridge, Stuart Grehan and Paul Dunne on the US collegiate circuit, he'll be keen to make waves for the University of Alabama. Last year's triumphant Boys team of Robin Dawson, Paul McBride, Rowan Lester, James Sugrue, Jake Whelan, Jack Walsh, Gareth Lappin, Jordan Hood, Sean Flanagan, Ronan Mullarney, Alec Myles and David Carey will also be expected to shine alongside the likes of Kevin Le Blanc, the teen sensation from The Island.

With Ballymena's Dermot McElroy just one of a host of senior internationals expected to turn professional in 2014, it will be interesting to see if he or any other members of the Irish panel can make a run in the British Amateur Championship at Royal Portrush and Portstewart in June. The move of the national finals of the All Ireland Cups and Shields to Carton House for the next three years should also provide plenty of entertainment. Prediction: A teenager to win a men's Championship.

Stephanie Meadow. Picture © ILGU.ie

Stephanie Meadow. Picture © ILGU.ie

Big year for Meadow

The women's game is not short of talent with Alabama based Stephanie Meadow and the Maguire twins Lisa and Leona at the top of the list. Meadow plans to turn professional at the end of the season and could well become the first Irish player to earn an LPGA Tour card. Closer to home, Paula Grant, Chloe Ryan Olivia Mehaffey, Mary Doyle and Jessica Carty will be expected to show that the ILGU's High Performance programme is working.

Prediction: Stephanie Meadow, currently third, to become world amateur No 1.