Paris: Rory McIlroy started 2012 as the crown prince of golf. He ended it as the undisputed king.
The 23-year-old from Holywood, near Belfast, won four times during the year, including his second major at the USPGA Championship, he became the second youngest ever world No 1, won the Money Lists on both sides of the Atlantic and played a leading role in Europe’s successful defence of the Ryder Cup.
McIlroy also impressed with his easy-going manner and integrity coupled with a healthy confidence in his own abilities and a willingness to put in the hard work on the range when things are not quite right
Not since Tiger Woods backed his car into a fire hydrant outside his Florida home in November 2009 unleashing a sex scandal that eventually floored him has golf had a truly dominant golfer at the head of the rankings.
And at such a young age, he can realistically expect to be at or near the top for the next two decades well into the 2030s.
It was not all sweetness and light for McIlroy in 2012. He made a strong start to the year, but in his own words “took my eye off the ball” in the late spring and summer, missing four cuts in five outings, one of those coming at the US Open, where he was defending champion.
But after a short trip back to the driving range for repairs, he re-emerged with a bang to win the USPGA by eight shots.
From there on until his win at the season-ending Race to Dubai tournament, he was superb and all his main rivals agree that he is currently the best golfer in the world by a good margin.
Fellow Northern Irishman and Ryder Cup partner Graeme McDowell is the golfer who knows McIlroy best and he is in no doubt of his worth.
“He’s the world number one player, he’s won two major championships at a very young age and very convincingly,” he said.
“He’s stamped his authority on world golf over the last couple of years. He’s only 23 years old and he’s just an incredibly talented kid with a great personality.”
McIlroy himself agrees that he has taken his golf up onto a new level in the last 12 months or so.
“I’ve always felt like I’ve been dedicated to the game and I’ve practiced hard and I’ve worked at it,” he said.
“But I guess over the last 18 months, especially after winning the US Open I felt like I went to the next level or the next stage of my career.
“I feel like my personality away from the golf course hasn’t changed, but definitely when I get to the golf course I’m maybe a little more professional, a little more businesslike and go about my business like that.”
Instrumental in him adopting this new harder, more focused edge, McIlroy says, has been girlfriend and former tennis world No 1 Caroline Wozniacki.
For 2013, McIlroy says he will play a less demanding schedule and look to perform at his peak in the majors, which, with the exception of the USPGA. he did not do in 2012.
The Masters in April saw an emotional win for straight-talking Bubba Watson, his hooked recovery shot from deep inside a clump of trees in a playoff with Louis Oosthuizen, the shot of the year for many fans.
Another American, Webb Simpson, also won his first major at the US Open played over the quirky Olympic Club course in San Francisco, while veteran Ernie Els benefitted from Adam Scott’s collapse over the last four holes at Royal Lytham to win the British Open.
Tiger Woods failed to add to his majors haul of 14, where he has been stranded since winning the US Open at Torrey Pines in 2008, and he remains four short of the record 18 won by Jack Nicklaus.
He did, however, enjoy a strong return to form in the year with three tournament wins and climbed back to second in the world rankings.
His budding rivalry with McIlroy, more than 13 years his junior, is being hotly anticipated for 2013.
It was an Englishman who stole the show in the Ryder Cup at Medinah outside Chicago in late September.
Outplayed by the Americans for much of the first two days, it looked like Europe would head into the 12 closing singles trailing by a near impossible 11-5.
But, playing with McIlroy in the penultimate afternoon fourballs, Ian Poulter closed with an astonishing five straight birdies to defeat the previously unbeaten Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson at the 18th hole.
The Englishman’s goggle-eyed, fist-pumping victory celebration after sinking the winning putt gave new hope to the flagging Europeans at 10-6 down.
The Poulter factor carried over to the following day when, against all the odds, they produced the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history to take the singles 8 1/2 to 3 1/2 with Martin Kaymer sinking the winning putt.
Poulter had won all four of his matches and he agreed that the biennial US-Europe showdown brought the best out of him.
“I don’t know. It’s a passion I have; it’s a passion I’ve seen at The Ryder Cup for years and years as a kid growing up, and it’s something that comes from within. I don’t know. I just love it,” he said.