Golfers of my age (just turned 40) have watched Rory McIlroy’s journey from a precocious teenage sensation to a sculpted multiple Major Champion in awe of the best player of our generation.
With a silky smooth rhythm, prodigious distance and an open, engaging personality he represents the golfer that we all wish we were.
In recent seasons, however, with a serious of niggly injuries and issues off the tee and on the greens, McIlroy’s star has dimmed somewhat. At the same time, other players have improved significantly. There were a number of years following Tiger Woods downfall where if Rory was at his best, you could be confident that he would win. Nowadays, you could sensibly argue that any of Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson or Justin Rose could beat McIlroy even on his peak form.
The start of the 2019 season has been an encouraging period for fans of McIlroy. Whilst he is yet to taste victory, a series of top 5 finishes has suggested more championships could be just around the corner.
In this blog we take a look at the statistics to help us predict whether big things await the Irishman in 2019.
2018 – The Year that Was
In order to predict the future, we must first look back. Whilst 2018 could not be considered a total disaster for McIlroy (he won the AP Invitational at Bay Hill and contended in a couple of the Majors), you just felt that his place at the top table of professional golf was being replaced with younger players.
His inability to pull off the right shot under pressure was perhaps best exemplified near the end of the season in his Ryder Cup singles match, where a poor drive and over-ambitious recovery on the final hole handed a tight match to his American opponent Justin Thomas.
The statistics tell the story of Rory’s relative troubles. At his peak, the Irishman dominated courses with his length and accuracy off the tee. With a strokes gained off the tee of just 0.76 for the year and a relatively paltry (for him) 66% of greens in regulation, his ball striking was not much better than the average Tour player, and he was quite open about his struggles with the occasional ‘big miss’ from the tee.
On the greens he was also very average with a strokes gained of 0.06. Ranking 119th on tour from 5 feet and 139th between 10-15′ is not a recipe for victories at the top-level. Interestingly he ranked 49th in putting average in the opening round of tournaments, 169th in round 2, but 1st in round 3 and 7th in the final round. This would suggest that he was a little tight in the opening stages of competition, but once he loosened up the putts started to drop.
2019 – Changes for the better?
Four and a half tournaments into his 2019 season, it is clear that McIlroy has spent the winter working on some changes in technique and strategy.
His Driver swing is noticeably more on-line at the top of the backswing aided by a more restricted hip turn. This will help him to avoid getting the club too far behind him on the downswing and hitting the odd big push to the right.
With his irons he is employing a shorter backswing and a pronounced holding off of the club through impact, with a controlled fade replacing his previously natural draw ball flight.
These changes have helped McIlroy to the top ranking on the strokes gained off the tee statistic on the PGA Tour with +1.3 strokes per round – an improvement of 2 shots per tournament on his 2018 long game performance. He is avoiding the big miss and hitting over 71% of greens in regulation – a return to somewhere near his best ball striking.
On the greens he is employing a new putter and there are some positive signs. A current strokes gained putting of 0.426 is not outstanding, but is an improvement of over a shot a tournament on his 2018 performance. Dig a little deeper though and some problems remain – ranking 217th in putts from 4′ and 194th in putts from 10-15′ is just not good enough to beat the field in a given week.
Nevertheless, McIlroy looks pretty good. He is healthy and seemingly content in his private life. His putting has always been quite streaky and if he can have an outstanding week on the greens, then he can certainly win more Majors. His ball-striking has returned to somewhere near his best and whilst this is no longer good enough to separate himself from everybody else, it will put him in contention most weeks.
He has perhaps the biggest week of his career coming up with the Open in his homeland at Portrush. Can he complete a fairytale victory? It will be fun to watch.