By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A year to forget for an injury-plagued Tiger Woods was savored 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.
McIlroy ended a stellar campaign with four victories and five runner-up spots in 23 starts worldwide, embellishing his credentials as a genuine golfing great in what many regard as a handover of the 'Tiger' torch to usher in a new 'Rory' era.
While former world number one Woods failed to add to his career major tally of 14 and played just eight tournaments during a winless and truncated season, McIlroy proved to be the player to beat virtually every time he teed off in competition.
McIlroy dominated golf's biggest events in the latter half of 2014 after American left-hander Bubba Watson had clinched the Masters for a second time in three years and Germany's Martin Kaymer had coasted to an eight-shot victory at the U.S. Open.
Swede Henrik Stenson, Australian Adam Scott and Spaniard Sergio Garcia each triumphed once as they also produced impressively consistent golf during the year but McIlroy set himself apart from his closest rivals, just as he did in 2012.
Having endured a turbulent 2013 on and off the course, McIlroy was once again a picture of focus and consistency, finishing no worse than 25th in 17 starts on the 2013-14 PGA Tour and recording three victories among 12 top-10 placings.
He also claimed the European Tour's money list trophy for the second time in three years and played an influential role in Europe's Ryder Cup victory over the United States in September.
McIlroy never looked back after recording his first win of the year at the European Tour's flagship BMW PGA Championship in May, just a few days after breaking up with his tennis-playing fiancee Caroline Wozniacki.
"Every time I teed it up, I felt like I had a good chance to win," McIlroy said of his superb form in 2014, highlighted by consecutive major wins at the British Open and PGA Championship sandwiched around a victory at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
"That's what I feel like I need going forward, consistency in my game and being up there each and every week," added the four-times major champion.
BACK AT THE TOP
McIlroy, who dropped to sixth in the world rankings after struggling with an equipment change and off-course distractions in 2013, enhanced his standing as golf's top player and many of his peers expect him to remain there for some time.
"I think we are witnessing at least a five-year spell as world number one (for McIlroy)," former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell said of his compatriot and long-time friend in a column for BBC Sport last month.
"I think he is going to dominate in the way Tiger Woods did in the early 2000s."
In April, the long-hitting Watson withstood an inspired early challenge from playing partner and compatriot Jordan Spieth in the final round to win the season's opening major, the Masters, by three shots at Augusta National.
Two months later in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, an ice-cool Kaymer thrived in sweltering conditions to leave his closest pursuers trailing in his wake as he confirmed his status as one of the game's very best.
McIlroy clinched the British Open, golf's oldest major, by two strokes at Royal Liverpool in July and three weeks later went on to win the PGA Championship at Valhalla by one shot after a pulsating finale in near darkness.
Woods, meanwhile, missed the Masters and the U.S. Open following surgery to alleviate a disk issue before finishing 69th at the British Open.
After missing the cut at the PGA Championship, he was once again on the sidelines for four months while recovering from a back injury.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)