McIlroy confident his "silly" season is behind him

McIlroy confident his "silly" season is behind him
 Rory McIlroy gives traditional Emirati Al Razfa dancing a whirl in Abu Dhabi.

 Rory McIlroy gives traditional Emirati Al Razfa dancing a whirl in Abu Dhabi.

The world rankings say he is only the seventh best player in the world but Rory McIlroy sounds like a man who's ready to regain his place on the throne of world golf in 2014.

After confessing in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday that his off course distractions as well as his move to Nike led to him being made to "look silly" when he was at his lowest ebb in The Open at Muirfield, he insists that all is right with the world once more.

If that's the case and he avoids any temptations to shoot himself in the foot, it would take guts to bet against him making as swift return to world No 1 as his descent. 

Until Tiger Woods wins another major, there will always be doubts that the 38-year old American can claim to be the undisputed top dog when McIlroy is at his best

Since he turned professional in September 2007, the curly haired genius from Co Down has won 10 official events, including two majors.

Taking the current Top-50 in the world rankings, only Woods (23 wins), Phil Mickelson (13 wins), Adam Scott, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer (11 each) have won more tournaments than the pride of Holywood.

No-one has won more majors. And that includes players no longer ranked in the Top-50.

Mickelson and current world No 121 Padraig Harrington are the only men who can match his two victories in the 24 majors than have been played since he made his professional debut in the Quinn Direct British Masters that September.

With Harrington's best days behind him until he can shake off the lingering effects of the yips, one wonders who can stand up to McIlroy when he is in full flow.

Lee Westwood (11 wins since September 2007) has a huge mental barrier to cross in the majors and with Open champion Mickelson set to turn 44 in June, it looks likely that McIlroy's biggest rivals over the next few years will need to pray that he doesn't start producing his A game on a regular basis.

Woods remains the biggest threat followed by the likes of Scott, Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen and fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell, whose haul of 10 wins and one major since 2008 bears comparison with that of his former stablemate.

 Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy kicked off the week with some dancing and club twirling. Gif via  

 Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy kicked off the week with some dancing and club twirling. Gif via  

Yes, we can add to that list young Americans such as Jordan Spieth and Harris English, the Australian Jason Day, the unpredictable yet impressive Dustin Johnson, the competitive steel of Keegan Bradley and Jason Dufner, the precision of England's Luke Donald and Justin Rose and the erratic Spaniard Sergio Garcia.

It remains to be seen how many of them have the A game to match McIlroy's and given the expected positive noises he made ahead of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, he sounds like he means business.

Recently engaged to Caroline Wozniacki (he got down on one knee as fireworks exploded on New Year's Eve in Sydney) and unburdened by the disaster of 2013 thanks to that Australian Open win over Scott in December, reports indicate that McIlroy had a broad smile on his face in the UAE.

“There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be smiling,” McIlroy told reporters, including Jamie Corrigan of the Daily Telegraph. “I’m happy."

He had no shortage of reasons for his bliss.

“Yes, 2013 was disappointing from a professional standpoint, but, as a whole personally it was a great year,” he told reporters. “I feel I have stability in my life now and the engagement will only help with regards to knowing everything in my life is set. I mean, if you get engaged, you plan to spend the rest of your life with that person, so it is a big decision. But she’s definitely the right girl for me.”

"Reflecting back on last year there was a lot of instability going on but I’m starting this season on such a different sort of platform. Everything feels like it’s fallen in place and I can just focus on my golf and play the way I know I can.”

McIlroy admitted that he was badly affected by his $100m a year equipment move and the ensuing legal entanglements with Oakley and his former management group, Horizon Sports.

“I’m not going to lie and say it didn’t affect me,” he said. “Of course it did. I was thinking of other things [apart from golf] when I really shouldn’t have had to. But that’s the last year I’m ever going to have go through that. I’ve learnt from it and am smarter because of it. And it’s great that I’ve gone through it at this stage in my career and not 15 years down the line.”

With only the Horizon litigation remaining to be settle, he could not be in a more different place than he was 12 months ago when he was unveiled as a Nike athlete in the most over the top way possible

“There was a load of stuff going on which didn’t let me focus 100 per cent on what I needed to do – play the best I could. This year is polar opposite. I’m using exactly the same [equipment] set-up that I used for the final quarter of last year. And I feel the driver and ball I put in the bag for that stretch at the end of the year has really, really helped.”

Reflecting on the lows of 2013, he said: “My biggest frustration was at the Open. Anything I was tried to do with the golf ball I couldn’t do. I was putting into bunkers; all sorts of stupid stuff. When the ground is so firm at Muirfield you have to be spot on and if you’re even a slight bit off it makes you look silly. 

"And I was a long way off and so it made me look even sillier. My confidence was so low and that’s not something I usually struggle with. So it was back to the drawing board and to try to salvage something from the year.”

Having (semi) jocosely told the BBC in December that he intends to make up for his lack of major wins in 2013 by winning two this year, he's clearly keen to consign last season to the Book of Blips.

As Harrington pointed out last year, if McIlroy plays well, he wins. Worryingly for his rivals, he's not prepared to accept another "silly" season.