If there’s one part of Rory McIlroy’s sensational game that most often lets him down, then it’s his putting and last week was much of the same, writes John McHenry.
The Dubai Duty Free Irish Open produced many memorable moments, none more so than Rory McIlroy’s phenomenal, tournament-defining second to the 16th hole in the final round. Given, the magnitude of the occasion, it was one of the best clutch shots I have ever witnessed, but should we have expected anything less from one of the gutsiest golfers in the world?
Time and again, McIlroy has proven his bravery at the very highest level, so Sunday’s thrilling climax was only a further extension of that. But for all the euphoria, the manner of McIlroy’s performance in victory also masked some very telling truths.
So let’s start with the positives. The most basic one is that raw talent no longer guarantees success and with the margins of victory being so minute, athletes must now do everything (physical and mental) possible to optimise their performance.
In short, the correct interpretation of data analytics for the likes of McIlroy can be the difference between building a more dominant “majors” legacy or being just another player in history who had a short few great years.
Last week, Rory demonstrated the considerable advantage he has gained from all his time in the gym with his biomechanical experts, by overpowering a course, which heavily favours power hitting. It was manifestly evident just how strong and stable McIlroy’s body core now is, allowing him to generate the necessary speed to pummel the ball 290-plus metres down the fairway or to effortlessly extract himself from any trouble with controlled shots out the thick wet grass, a feat that was too tough for the majority of the field.
I was also very impressed with McIlroy’s fairway metals and iron play. While no one will forget his last two shots to the par fives, his long game play, in general, set in stone the foundations for his ultimate victory so McIlroy will be happy that this aspect of his game is in such good shape with the year’s second major, the US Open at Oakmont, just around the corner.
If McIlroy has a concern then, as usual, it is with his short game. Last week he would have been very disappointed with certain aspects of his wedge play (spin control) as well as his inconsistent chipping.
These are normally very good components of McIlroy’s game but for some reason he either lost focus at times or second guessed himself, something he can not afford to do at the most penal major championship of them all, the US Open.
In recent weeks, both Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley have commented on McIlroy’s concentration and focus levels during tournament play, saying that he was coming in and out of focus during rounds and that it is nowhere near where it needs to be for 72 holes of tournament golf.
Where once he would get the lead and run away with the tournament, currently McIlroy is prone to letting players like Russell Knox back in. Now that he has won again, hopefully this will give him the confidence to push on as he will need that mental edge and clarity if he wants to regain his status as the world’s most dominant player.
If there’s one part of Rory McIlroy’s sensational game that most often lets him down, then it’s his putting and last week was much of the same.
Currently, he’s ranked 125th in ‘strokes gained putting’ on the PGA Tour in America, while the world’s best player Jason Day is ranked No 2. Rory’s form on the greens has undoubtedly improved since switching his grip a couple of months ago to left hand under, but the statistics still do not make for comfortable reading for him.
In fact if we look at the performance chart of the world’s top 5 players, it is worth noting that of the top 3, their average tournament scores are pretty similar 279.28 for Day, 279.56 for Spieth and 279.40 for McIlroy. But if we look at their tournament putting averages, McIlroy is currently conceding five shots per tournament (72 holes) to Day and six to Spieth.
That McIlroy continues to compensate for his performance on the greens with every other area of his game, should give you an understanding of the sort of pressures that his long game is under and why he is so naturally aggressive on the golf course.
He simply cannot afford to play too conservatively, but neither can he continue to give players of the calibre of Day and Spieth a head start, especially when the tournament is as important as a major championship.
So what constructive steps can he now take to try to arrest this worrying statistic?
Well, given that he is mid-season, the time for any radical changes are not now, but he could well look at changing his pre-shot routine or the time he takes to hit the putt by way of freshening up his outlook on putting, which in turn will allow him to concentrate and commit fully to his target line.
Even the slightest improvement in his putting performance could well the factor that makes the difference in a tight battle for a major championship.
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