By Stefanie McIntyre
MACAU (Reuters) - Tiger Woods believes Rory McIlroy is slowly getting his golf game back on track and predicted on Tuesday that the former world number one would claim a breakthrough first victory of the year by the end of December.
McIlroy was on top of the world at the end of 2012, having won the orders of merit on both sides of the Atlantic, but he has had a turbulent season this year on and off the course.
The Northern Irishman changed his clubs in January, a switch that was criticized by several pundits. He is also in the middle of a bitter court dispute with his former management team and, according to media reports, has split from girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki.
"He is playing better and swinging a lot better," 14-times major champion Woods told Reuters in an interview. "You can see that some of the stuff he and his coach are working on are starting to come together.
"He's starting to put together a few good rounds, now he just has to make a few more putts. I can definitely see him winning sometime this year because his game has come around."
World number one Woods had a close-up view of McIlroy when he lost to the twice major winner in a lucrative head-to-head exhibition match on China's Hainan Island on Monday.
The two golfers are both based in Florida and the 37-year-old American said he and world number six McIlroy had formed an excellent relationship.
"Rory has become a good friend of mine over probably the past year, year and a half," explained Woods. "It seems like every tournament we're paired together, we're also playing practice rounds together and we have really hit it off.
"He plays on both tours, U.S. and European, so we see each other at big events and when we do we try and play practice rounds whenever we can."
Woods has taken full advantage of the 24-year-old McIlroy's form slump, returning to the top of the world rankings with five victories this season.
None of his 2013 wins have come in the big four championships but he left little room for doubt that he still yearns to break the 18-major record of compatriot Jack Nicklaus.
"It took him until he got to 46 to do it and this year I'll be 38 so there's plenty of time," said Woods. "A lot of guys have won a lot of majors post 40.
"The great thing about staying fit is we're able to play at a high level for a long period of time so hopefully I can compete at this level for a very long period of time."
Woods said his game was still improving and he could now plot his way around courses better than before.
"I don't necessarily have the same whooping power I used to ... but my understanding of how to play, how to manage my game around the golf course has got infinitely better," he added.
"I'm still hitting the ball plenty far but there's a next generation of kids out there that are taller, bigger, more athletic who absolutely annihilate it. The game has changed, a lot of guys are 6-foot-3 and above and hit the ball for miles.
"It's not too often you see shorter, smaller players who don't have power doing well. You've got to have power in our game now," said Woods.
The American is to miss the final World Golf Championship (WGC) event of the season in Shanghai this week but will compete in next week's Turkish Open.
(Writing by Tony Jimenez in London, editing by Pritha Sarkar)