Commentary

Four storylines to watch in 2014

Campaigns of Stenson, McIlroy, Garcia and Mickelson among most compelling

Updated: January 15, 2014, 12:29 PM ET
By Farrell Evans | ESPN.com

To fully understand the 2013 golf season, you must know the stories of four players.

There was Henrik Stenson, who won both the FedEx Cup playoffs and the European Tour's Race to Dubai.

Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia made more news, perhaps, for what they did off the course than for anything they did on it.

And then there was Phil Mickelson, who won at Muirfield in July and finally took his first Open Championship after wondering if he would ever win the game's oldest major.

They are all in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at the par-72, 7,600-yard Abu Dhabi Golf Club, the first of three European Tour events held in the Middle East.

[+] EnlargeHenrik Stenson
Ross Kinnaird/Getty ImagesHenrik Stenson won the FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai in 2013. Could he add a major championship to the list in 2014?

What might the experiences of these four players from last year tell us about what they will do in 2014? Did they learn anything about themselves that will launch them to greater heights in the new year?

If they have learned anything over that past year, perhaps, it's that the fortunes in their careers can change very fast and that this game is unflinching in its power to both humble and inspire greatness.

It was here last year in Abu Dhabi that McIlroy emerged with a new Nike contract after winning the PGA Championship the previous August by eight shots. No player had ever -- not even Tiger Woods -- garnered such a lavish spectacle over an equipment change.

Then McIlroy missed the cut in the tournament, setting off a disappointing season in which he was haunted by his equipment switch, inconsistent play, a public breakup with his manager and the pressure that went with being the No. 1 player in the world.

Several good finishes restored his confidence in the fall, including a victory at the Australian Open in December, but the damage was already done. His recent engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki could also bring some calm to what was a tumultuous past year.

Now seventh in the world rankings, McIlroy's main professional obstacle is rising again to the top of the game. The questions about his comfort level with his Nike equipment have mostly subsided, but until he wins a major with his new sticks, it will be hard for him or any of us to forget his struggles.

His most helpful lesson from the hardships of last year might be that he can't let the fame and various off-course responsibilities represent a distraction to his game.

McIlroy is a long way from his old form, but a good start to his season could put him in the right frame of mind to rest any lingering doubts that he is still, in the minds of many, the heir apparent to Woods.

Getting beyond Tiger is just what Garcia hopes to do in 2014. For the 34-year-old Spaniard, the "fried chicken" joke at the expense of the No. 1 player in the world might long be a source of embarrassment, but this lapse in judgment shouldn't destroy his excellent chance of becoming a major champion.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods and Sergio Garcia
Brad Barr/USA TODAY SportsAfter a poor choice of words turned Sergio Garcia's 2013 into a public relations nightmare, he looks to regroup for a run at a major in 2014.

Instead, he should use the humiliation of the gaffe to focus his energies on being the best in the world -- and not the guy who let his resentment of Tiger push him close to professional ruin.

Yet considering the uproar over those remarks that came last May, Garcia had a remarkable season.

He finished the year off with five top-10s in his last seven events, including a win in Thailand in December. Still his 0-for-44 mark in the majors pokes at the open wound between he and Woods, the 14-time major winner.

A major victory is about the only thing that Stenson didn't earn in 2013. Worldwide, the 37-year-old Swede had 13 top-10s, including three wins and four seconds.

Last year when he finished 23rd in Abu Dhabi, he was ranked 52nd in the world and was just trying to qualify for the majors and WGC events. His last PGA Tour victory had come at the Players in 2009.

The universe he knows today as No. 3 in the world was then nowhere on his horizon. Last year, through sheer will and determination he forced his way into the storylines by playing his way into contention. Now he starts the new season at Abu Dhabi with all eyes on him to see what he will do with the newfound confidence and celebrity status.

At Muirfield, Stenson was beat by Mickelson, who shot a masterful 66 in the final round to take his first Claret Jug.

The 43-year-old Mickelson, who finished 37th in his last appearance at Abu Dhabi in 2011, has made clear that his main objective now is to win the U.S. Open to complete the career grand slam. Sure, the San Diego native wants to win more Masters, PGAs and Open Championships, but he would take one U.S. Open trophy over anything else.

As great as Pete Sampras was in his storied tennis career, his failure to win on the clay at Roland Garros left a minor blemish on his legacy.

Mickelson has had a very full career, but this journey to complete the grand slam will likely shape the remainder of what are likely his last three or four years as a top player. Lefty would do well to get over this hurdle at Pinehurst in June. None of these four players will get complete answers this week in Abu Dhabi about what the coming year promises, but it will be important for each of them to stamp out a positive trajectory for the rest of 2014.

For McIlroy and Garcia in 2014, there's an anxious desire to see if the finish to their 2013 seasons will carry over into this year.

Meanwhile, Stenson will try to improve upon his superb consistency of last year, while Mickelson will aim mostly for Pinehurst.

The stories these men provide in 2014 could turn out again to be some of the most watched and scrutinized in the entire golf season.

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