By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) - Twelve months ago Rory McIlroy went into the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island on a high, having ended a run of poor form with an encouraging tie for fifth at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational the previous week.
The mop-haired Northern Irishman took full advantage, clinching the season's final major by a record-breaking eight shots before going on to win twice more on the 2012 PGA Tour as he stormed back to the top of the world rankings.
This year, however, is very different, and McIlroy will launch his PGA Championship title defense at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York on Thursday still searching for confidence and consistency in his driving.
His bid last week to replicate that 2012 turnaround in his game at the Bridgestone Invitational was not as successful: he carded rounds of even-par 70, 71, 69 and 72 to finish joint 27th at Firestone Country Club in a field of 73.
"I definitely had a better week last year, coming out of Firestone with a lot of confidence going into the PGA, feeling good about my game," world number three McIlroy told reporters.
"I keep saying my game doesn't feel too far away. It's obviously not where I want it to be, but it's not a million miles away."
Though McIlroy signed off at Firestone with his worst score of the week, he was somewhat encouraged by the improvement in his ball striking.
"It was okay," the 24-year-old said. "I thought I struck the ball much better (in the final round) than I did the previous three days, which was great, which was a good sign.
"Obviously I didn't score very well the first day, then I didn't hit it particularly well in the middle two rounds, but actually my short game was good and was able to keep myself around par.
"(On Sunday) I played nicely, just a couple of bad holes on the back nine. It's definitely going in the right direction."
McIlroy, who claimed the order of merit on both sides of the Atlantic last year, certainly needs his game to be heading in the right direction after enduring a roller-coaster ride this season, both on and off the course.
He has mainly struggled for form since switching his club brand at the start of the season to Nike in a lucrative deal reported to be worth as much as $250 million over 10 years, recording just four top-10s in 12 starts on the PGA Tour.
McIlroy has also been criticized for the amount of time he spends with his girlfriend, former world number one tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, many suggesting that his private life has taken up too much of his potential practice time for golf.
The Northern Irishman readily admits the past 12 months have been "up and down" for him, with a tendency of late to become "a little bit too emotionally involved" with his game.
"I've let it either get me excited or get me down, where I should really just not get too high or too low about it at all," McIlroy said.
"But I have put in a lot of work for the past couple of weeks and I definitely feel things are going in the right direction.
"Once I get my long game back on track, I feel like my short game is exactly where it needs to be. If I can start hitting some fairways, hopefully I can challenge for some tournaments."
McIlroy will tee off in Thursday's opening round at Oak Hill in the company of former champions Vijay Singh of Fiji (1998) and Germany's Martin Kaymer (2010).
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Julian Linden)