Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Don't give up on our Rory, he'll be a major player again

Huge talent: Rory McIlroy has endured a difficult 2013 campaign, but can reign again when 2014 comes around

Christmas time. Back in the mid-2000s. A jam-packed Ards Shopping Centre.

I'm just about to leave the madness behind and walk to the car park when I spot a young man sporting a mop of curly hair.

With the scores of shoppers around him weighed down by a look of exhaustion and presents overflowing from their bags, the kid, without a care in the world, glided through the crowds with a jaunty stride that would become famous in years to come.

It was Rory McIlroy.

Nobody, bar me, recognised this talented teenager or if they did they were too exasperated by the festive frenzy to take any notice of a soon to be sporting superstar in their midst.

Today, if Rory and Santa Claus himself were to walk into Ards Shopping Centre, more fuss would be made of the Holywood native.

And that's even if the big bearded bloke in the red coat had his sack, Rudolf and the rest of the reindeers with him!

Everybody recognises Rory now everywhere he goes.

And everyone wants a piece of him.

Up until this year, McIlroy had appeared to handle the fame, adulation and the constant scrutiny of his life reasonably well.

Turning professional in 2007 at the ripe old age of 18, after an impressive amateur career, Rory gradually moved up the gears to become one of the top players on fairways and greens around the globe.

Here, in Northern Ireland, we knew that sooner rather than later he would become number one and win the major titles all golfers crave.

There was a certainty about it... like night following day.

Victory was on the cards in the 2011 Masters until a final round collapse, known universally as 'McIlroy's meltdown' halted his charge to the Butler Cabin at Augusta to put on the green jacket.

Two months down the line McIlroy outlined not only his undoubted class, but also his character, claiming the US Open title by a record margin.

A year later at the US PGA Championship he collected his second major in similar fashion.

He was so far ahead of the field in both those events that he lapped the lot of them!

McIlroy, born to swing and putt, was at the top of his game and on top of the world.

The feeling in clubhouses around the country was that this wizard would become even more dominant in 2013.

And here we are in November waiting for Rory to enjoy his first victory of the year.

Still only 24, McIlroy is learning early about the highs and lows of sport. He admits that this has been a horrible spell for him.

It didn't start too shabbily when he signed that $250m 10-year-deal in January with Nike, but it's been a bumpy road since then.

There have been on course failings and off course problems with the latter having much to do with the former.

There was the difficulty of getting used to his new equipment.

Then came that bizarre moment in March when he walked off the course in the Honda Classic tournament after completing just 27 holes.

First severe toothache was blamed for his premature exit, before later he admitted it was the wrong thing to do.

In the summer he missed the cut at The Open and talked about feeling "brain dead" on the course.

The ongoing speculation about his relationship with tennis ace Caroline Wozniacki cannot have helped.

And perhaps most trying of all has been his split from Dublin-based firm Horizon Sports Management which has ended up being fiercely contested in the law courts.

Put all that together, as well as moving to a new house in America and becoming acquainted with a new life in a different country away from his closest friends, and Rory sure has had a lot going on.

Ahead of launching his defence of the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai today, McIlroy stated that the stuff in the background had been a distraction.

No wonder then, that he just wants to get back to playing golf.

When he does that, and clears his mind, it won't be long before his quality shines through. He'll come out of this slump, so don't give up on Rory McIlroy just yet.

Our Holywood hero will be back, stronger than ever and will become a major force again in a sport, where the big events are harder to win than in any other.

2013 was not his year, but 2014 can be.

The Masters is in April.

That green jacket would look good on Rory.