Dawn of Rory era

Looking back: McIlroy was the dominant player in golf even as Tiger Woods struggled.

Dawn of Rory era

A year to forget for an injury-plagued Tiger Woods was savoured sweetly by Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy after the 'Celtic Tiger' won two majors in 2014 to regain his status as the game's leading player.

Not since Woods was at his best from 2000 to 2006 has one player been so commanding and, by the time the season was over, there was no more debate over who is the best golfer in the world.

McIlroy's year started slowly enough following a poor 2013, but following the breakup of his relationship with tennis player Caroline Wozniacki in late May, McIlroy returned to his very best.

The vital spark was his win that very same week from seven shots back in the European Tour's PGA Championship at Wentworth. The summer brought back-to-back majors, his third and fourth, at the British Open at Hoylake and USPGA at  the Valhalla.

Those saw him climb above Adam Scott and Henrik Stenson atop the world rankings and by the time the dust had settled McIlroy was the undisputed kingpin. He was the first UK player to win consecutive majors and the third youngest player of the modern era - after Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus - to win four majors.

The prospects for 2015 are mouth-watering if he can keep this rich run of form going. A win in April at The Masters would set him up for a crack at four-in-a-row at the US Open in June, and the possibility of emulating Woods' fabled run in 2000-01 (Woods completed his slam at the Masters).

McIlroy, who also played a key role in Europe’s Ryder Cup win, firmly believes that he is coming into his prime.

"I'm 25, and I think I've got another 10-15 year window of playing great golf and win big tournaments and I'm going to do everything I can to be as successful as I can," he said in Sydney recently ahead of the Australian Open.

Whether he wins at Augusta National or not, golf's landscape -- cloaked around Woods for the last 15 years -- has certainly changed.Rising American star Jordan Spieth summed up the new horizon nicely after winning back-to-back titles in Australia and Florida in December.

"To take it to the next level, to win a major, I've got to look to Rory," Spieth said. "He's the one we're all chasing. I did a good job of beginning that chase the past couple weeks."

"I understand that when I'm out here and I'm one of the young guys, people want to see somebody come up and do what Tiger did and change a generation of golf.

"But right now I look at number one in the world Rory McIlroy, what he did this year, and I'm trying to chase him more than I am ]anything else."

McIlroy apart there were big wins in 2015 for Bubba Watson, lifting his second Masters title in three years at Augusta in April and for Martin Kaymer, who confirmed his return to form with a wire-to-wire win in the US Open in June.

Woods meanwhile struggled with injuries throughout the year raising more question marks over whether - at 39 - he will ever return to the levels that made him the biggest name in sport.

Back surgery in March and a new coach in the shape of Chris Como in November are the fixes he has employed, but if his last place finish on his return to action in Florida this month are anything to go by he still has a long way to go.

On the plus side, he has the Masters at Augusta and the British Open at St Andrews -- two fabled courses where he has won six of his 14 major titles - to whet his appetite.
"I've been hurt. I've been out of it for a long time. I've had to make my run to get back there," Woods said.

"It takes winning... it's a process to get back to that level. You've got to build up to it. I've got some time."

Woods of course was absent in late September when Paul McGinley's Europe - with McIlroy to the fore - once again put the United States to the sword in the Ryder Cup in Scotland.

The 16-1/2 to 11-1/2 defeat was the sixth in the last seven editions of the competition for the Americans and it was an especially bitter blow for golfing legend Tom Watson whose captaincy came in for the most scathing of criticisms notably from leading player Phil Mickelson.

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