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McIlroy should be happier with his season than Woods

The competitivefire has been dampened in Woods whilst McIlroy is on the up.

Posted Dec 17, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

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So, with the implements safely stored away at the end of another competitive year, who is entitled to be more pleased about their endeavours in 2013, the player who started the year as world number one, or the man who ended it at the top of the order?  Is Tiger Woods, with five tournament victories to his credit, entitled to feel more gratified than Rory McIlroy, who happens to be 14 years his junior?

My belief is that McIlroy is the one with more cause to enjoy the Christmas cheer, simply because victory last month in the Australian Open, meant more to his career than those five tournament victories meant to Woods.

Of course, it’s all a question of perspective, and McIlroy could have been forgiven for writing off the entire season to experience, before that memorable breakthrough at Royal Sydney.  Changing his entire equipment, as in clubs and ball, over to new sponsors, Nike, proved to be a lot more testing than the Holywood star had imagined.  And to compound his problems, there were legal issues to be sorted out with former sponsors, Oakley, and with Horizon Sports with which he parted company last spring.

Added to this unhealthy mix was speculation about his relationship with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki.  In the event, this particular item proved to be the only bright light in that rumours were seen to have been entirely unfounded in the wake of the Australian Open triumph.  And from McIlroy’s perspective, there was the considerable boost of having his difficulties with Oakley sorted out satisfactorily.

Through bleak times on competitive terrain, McIlroy maintained the belief that he could turn things around.  Top-level sportspeople seem compelled to think that way, despite crippling evidence to the contrary.   Deep down, however, I imagine he would have been prepared to draw a blank, setting such disappointment against the considerable bonus of having sorted out the equipment transition.  And there is no doubting the importance of that particular issue, given the amount of money involved.  It wasn’t as if he could have turned away from Nike in favour of other, more benign equipment.   Financial security for the rest of his life, was at stake.

So, rather than a sense of relief at ending his season with a memorable victory over Masters champion, Adam Scott, McIlroy would have been entitled to view developments in Sydney as something of a bonus.

And what of Woods?  Where were the bonuses for him?  In truth, there weren’t any.  That much was determined by the absence of a 15th Major title and the manner in which he lost to Zach Johnson recently in his own event at Sherwood Country Club.  The problem with Sherwood was not the rare experience of losing a play-off:  those sort of set-backs happen to the best.  The real concern for Woods would have been the strange absence of the killer instinct which characterised the most successful phases of his competitive career.

It seemed odd to be witnessing so much smiling, which appeared far too natural to have been the product of serious acting.  All of which prompted the conclusion that the fire has been dampened in Woods’s belly.  And there is little prospect of another Major success unless he can somehow fan the flames once more.  That’s what kept Nicklaus going for so long; an unquenchable belief in his own competitive talent, even though critics had written him off long before his 18th Major triumph in the 1986 Masters.

It’s not easy to keep the fires stoked.  Seve Ballesteros had lost the battle some time before he reached Woods’s current age.  So had Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson.  And Curtis Strange.  It’s a complicated process which can be attributed in part to wear and tear on the nervous system, along with a natural awareness of much already achieved.

In this context, there may have been a greater fall-out than we imagined from the three-quarters of a season Woods lost due to surgery on his left knee in June 2008.  Then there were the horrendous consequences of his infamous altercation with a fire hydrant around this time four years ago.

Bobby Jones was right when he talked about the game of golf being played on a course measuring five and a half inches – the distance between a golfer’s two ears.  So, for Woods and McIlroy, the condition of the course may well determine the quality of their performances during the months and years ahead.

- Dermot Gilleece

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