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McIlroy: The rise of golf's new superman?

By Tom McGowan, CNN
December 9, 2011 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rory McIlroy is seeking more major success in 2012 after a breakthrough year
  • The Northern Irishman won his first major at June's U.S. Open and is No. 2 in the world
  • The 22-year-old golfer is dating top-ranked Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki
  • McIlroy wants a final-day showdown with 14-time major champion Tiger Woods

(CNN) -- In April, a dejected Rory McIlroy slumped away from the well-manicured Augusta National golf course after suffering one of the most dramatic final-round collapses in the sport's history.

Despite starting the day as the dominant force and with a four-shot lead at the prestigious Masters, nerves and neuroses combined in the Atlanta sunshine to see him drop six strokes in three holes on the back nine on his way to an eight-over-par 80.

His first career major had slipped through his fingers and his meltdown -- excruciating miss after excruciating miss -- had been captured by the world's media.

The disintegration of McIlroy's focus and golfing faculty was such that doubt was cast on his burgeoning talent. Did the young Northern Irishman have what it took to be a champion?

The question did not remain unanswered for long. Fast forward two months, having not long passed his 22nd birthday, when McIlroy showed the steel that many feared he lacked by destroying all before him at the U.S. Open with a tournament-record 16-under-par total at Congressional. His first major had been won, redemption had been achieved.

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After a turnaround worthy of Hollywood -- which is maybe fitting for a man born in the small town of Holywood -- McIlroy became a superstar. And the scintillating form of 2011 that had driven his meteoric rise continued: he is currently second in the world rankings and on the verge of finishing top of the European Tour's money list for the first time.

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Maybe unsurprisingly, he is looking forward to 2012. "I'm in a very happy place in my life," McIlroy told CNN. "I'm very happy with what's going on on the golf course.

"There have been a few changes in my life. One of the biggest ones is becoming a major champion and realizing the different pressures that come with that status.

"It's nice to have one major, but then to get your second and to call yourself a multiple major champion would be something very special and it's something I want to try to do next year."

In 1997, another 22-year-old had similarly lofty ambitions.

After a year which saw him clinch the Masters title, Tiger Woods used his first major triumph as a springboard for one of the most devastating spells of dominance that golf, and indeed sport, has ever seen.

Another 13 majors followed for Woods during a decade of almost uninterrupted supremacy, before injury and revelations about his personal life in late 2009 led to a meltdown both on and off the golf course.

Woods' collapse was dramatic. First, he surrendered top spot in the world rankings for the first time in 281 weeks when Lee Westwood usurped him in November 2010.

I'm looking forward to hopefully having the chance to go up against him next year on the final day of a tournament
Rory McIlroy on Tiger Woods

It marked the start of Woods' troubles and his nadir arrived in October this year, when a two-year winless streak culminated with him slipping out of the top 50 for the first time since 1996.

But recently Woods has shown signs of flickering back into life, exhibiting flashes of his dominant best to clinch last week's Chevron World Challenge and finally stop the rot.

Far from intimidating McIlroy, the possibility of facing a rejuvenated Woods inspires him. McIlroy hopes to test himself to the limit by putting himself through a final-day showdown with the 35-year-old in 2012.

"I'm looking forward to hopefully having the chance to go up against him next year on the final day of a tournament," McIlroy said of Woods.

"I'm sure a lot of the younger guys are as well because it's something we've never been able to do before.

"It's new to us and it's a big challenge, to see how we handle it and to pit ourselves against possibly the best player to ever play the game."

The younger guys McIlroy speaks of have capitalized on the power vacuum created by Woods' fall from grace. Although hardly a youngster, England's Luke Donald has benefited the most by rising to the top of the world rankings and sealing his position at the top of the U.S. PGA Tour money list.

In fact, if the 34-year-old can fend off competition from McIlroy at this weekend's Dubai World Championship he will become the first player in the sport's history to finish a season top of both the European and U.S. money lists.

She puts 100% effort into her game, it's nice to be able to share things with someone who really understands
Rory McIlroy on Caroline Wozniacki

In addition to Donald, an array of rising stars have blazed a trail up the world rankings. One such player is Australia's Jason Day, who finished second at the Masters and U.S. Open during a breakthrough 2011.

"There's quite a few of us out there, the likes of myself, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day," explained McIlroy. "Jason Day is a guy who really impresses me.

"I've played quite a lot of golf with him this year. He's only 23 years old and he's been second in two majors this year and he's really cemented himself among the top players in the world. I think he'll have a very good season next year."

As one of the sport's bright young hopes, McIlroy's profile is bound to rise in 2012. But it is not just his on-course performance which is attracting media attention.

McIlroy's blossoming romance with the world's top-ranked female tennis player Caroline Wozniacki is another reason why his celebrity stock is on the rise.

"I'm very content," McIlroy said. "I'm happy with the team that I have around me and I'm happy with everything else that's going on. We both lead very similar lifestyles. If I'm perfectly honest, Caroline is a very good influence on me."

McIlroy explained how the drive exhibited by his Danish girlfriend in pursuit of her maiden grand slam title acts as an inspiration to him.

"She is incredibly hard-working, she puts 100% effort into her game. It's nice to be able to share things with someone who really understands," he said of the 21-year-old.

"I've really enjoyed the time that I've spent with her over the past few months."

McIlroy has certainly come a long way since that disastrous Sunday at the Masters, with his new-found confidence best illustrated by his response to the question, "Would you back yourself to win a major next season?"

His three-word answer: "Yes I would."

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