Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy make their 2014 debuts at this week's Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on the European Tour. Mickelson, who turns 44 this year, won three times around the world, including the British Open. McIlroy, who turns 25, was winless on the two major tours in '13, but claimed the Australian Open in December. So, which one will have a better campaign this year? GolfChannel.com writers weigh in.
By REX HOGGARD
With a monsoon of respect for Phil Mickelson, who may be bound for a historic and emotional U.S. Open victory this year to complete the career Grand Slam, 2014 will be Rory McIlroy’s rebound year.
It was roughly 12 months ago when the Ulsterman made his theatric debut as a Nike Golf staffer, complete with a laser light show, in Abu Dhabi and he fell off the rails almost immediately – missing the cut in his first start, getting bounced in Round 1 at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and succumbing to a tooth ache at the Honda Classic.
Along the way he posted just five top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour, but as the year slowly progressed his life, both on and off the golf course, began to realign.
As fall turned to winter, numerous legal issues with former sponsors and managers started to be resolved, he was engaged to longtime girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki and he closed the season with top-10 showings in Korea, China (WGC-HSBC Champions), Dubai and at the Australian Open, where he outdueled hometown favorite Adam Scott for his first - and only - victory of 2013.
Without the pressure of a multi-million dollar endorsement contract hanging over him, McIlroy is poised to reassert himself; while the pressure facing Mickelson may turn out to be the most intense of his career.
By RYAN LAVNER
Barring another legal snafu, this is shaping up to be a monster bounce-back season for Rory McIlroy, an opinion emboldened by his late-season play that saw him get off the schneid in Australia. After a year of turmoil and transition – the new clubs, the spotlight as world No. 1, the battles in the courts – McIlroy should be decidedly more at peace as he begins his 2014 campaign this week in Abu Dhabi.
Finally, the questions lobbed at McIlroy should have little to do with his new equipment, or whether he’s distracted by the relationship rumors, or who is making his off-the-course decisions. No, it is simply this: whether the 24-year-old can return to the form that saw him nab majors in consecutive years, and in record-setting fashion.
The boy wonder has dropped all the way to seventh in the world, the lowest he has been ranked since June 2011. With finishes of 11th or better in five of his last six starts, however, it’s looking increasingly likely that he won’t be ranked that low for long.
By WILL GRAY
While I expect both players to have successful campaigns in 2014, I’m giving the edge to the elder statesman – Phil Mickelson.
You have to go all the way back to 2003 to find a PGA Tour season in which Lefty didn’t record at least one victory. That’s a remarkable stretch of consistency, one that Rory McIlroy failed to emulate last season. While Mickelson will likely judge his season as a success or failure based on his outcome at Pinehurst No. 2, a year that ends without the elusive U.S. Open trophy will still likely include at least one win and a handful of title contentions, even on an abbreviated playing schedule.
McIlroy no longer has the pressure of the world’s top ranking around his shoulders, and he’s had a year to grow more familiar with his new equipment. Both factors should help him return to form in 2014. But it feels like more than 18 months have passed since the Ulsterman was dominating the PGA Championship and FedEx Cup Playoffs, and his upcoming year will not be without distraction, whether fielding questions about his recent engagement, getting his fledgling agency off the ground or fighting courtroom battles with his former representatives.
Both will certainly show signs of brilliance across the next nine months, but Mickelson’s body of work will prove more impressive by year’s end.
By RANDALL MELL
Rory McIlroy didn’t hit a lot of greens and didn’t putt well most of last year. He was 86th on the PGA Tour hitting greens in regulation. He was 122nd in strokes gained-putting.
Of course, when you’re playing in a fog, it’s not unexpected you might get lost along your way. That’s really what last year was like for McIlroy, with a battle going on over his management and with lawsuits following. You factor in the ratcheted expectations after signing a huge new deal with Nike, and there was a lot of haze and mist to play through last year.
With a year’s transition behind him and with a victory late last year in Australia, McIlroy is too talented not to find his way out of the fog. While Phil Mickelson, 43, is perfectly capable of delivering something big again this year, McIlroy, 24, has already shown he has the tools to dominate, to deliver a Player of the Year performance. Mickelson has never been POY.
By JASON SOBEL
Rory McIlroy will have a better season than Phil Mickelson.
If for no other reason, this will happen because Mickelson has already announced he will dial back his appearances by about 25 percent, while the younger McIlroy should be primed to compete as much as ever on two different tours. Wisdom tooth permitting, of course.
There are other reasons, too.
Simply put, Rory is too talented to duplicate a 2013 that saw him win just one late-season event and finish top-10 “only” nine times in 25 starts. How quickly we forget that this is a player who in the two previous years not only won majors, but won them each by eight strokes. Now that he’s got his equipment, management team and love life in order, the fewer distractions should lead to greater successes.
Meanwhile, Phil is at a point in his career where he’s going to place all of his eggs in four baskets. It’s no secret that he’d give up however many more regular-season PGA Tour wins for another major – especially if that major is the U.S. Open. More than ever before, expect these other events to serve as warmups for the bigger ones, which means we should expect less from him when playing ‘em.
They are two of the game’s most proficient players, but their careers have reached an intersection. Expect McIlroy to start playing even better, while the slight beginning of a decline happens for Mickelson this year.