It was a little over two years ago that the world woke up to Ireland’s Rory McIlroy. The youngster had made splashes in the golf community with impressive showings in earlier majors, dazzled for three days at the Masters and blew the field away at Charlotte. But it was the US Open at Congressional that put him on the world stage.
Over four days McIlroy dominated the field in ways reminiscent of Tiger Woods. On Saturday at the Championship I asked a national writer whose knowledge of swing mechanics I respected to identify something about McIlroy’s swing he ‘didn’t’ like. He hesitated and said there was very little to dislike, but if he had to have an answer he thought the swing might be a little too dependent on timing.
Skip ahead to Saturday at Merion and I found myself in conversation with the same writer. We were no longer focused on McIlroy alone, but rather the landscape of players in professional golf. When the young Irishman’s name came up the writer volunteered that he thought Rory might be a little lacking in the intensity needed to be a great player.
That brings us to the present and an Open weekend without McIlroy in the field, much less the hunt for the title. The “next Tiger” is at sea with his game and the scalpels are out dissecting the cadaver. A British headline asked, What’s wrong with Rory?” The USA Today described him as “searching for help after a fat 79.” The boy king had fallen from grace and golf world was working on the post mortems.
Forget the fact that he is the current PGA Champion and won twice again in the Fed Ex series in 2012. Disregard the distinction of being the only player in the world who has two majors on his resume in the last four years. Two mediocre major showings and a missed cut at Muirfield has turned into a crisis.
Hold the 911 calls and consider a broader perspective.
McIlroy is still the most gifted golfer not named Tiger in the game today. When he is good, he is so good he covers what is lacking in his game. But when he struggles, like every other golfer, those warts are apparent. The 24 year old has challenges to face if he is to realize the expectations placed on him after Congressional and Kiawah.
Another writer friend of mine once pointed out that McIlroy’s biggest wins came on courses with weather-softened conditions. Both Congressional and Kiawah were rain plagued majors. Relying on that perspective and my own, I have repeatedly suggested that while the swing so admired by many in the game of golf only occasionally generates the kind of outcomes one should expect.
His Sunday 80 at Augusta two years ago began to unravel when he missed greens early and failed to save par. Both Olympic a year ago and Merion this year maintained their green speeds despite moist conditions elsewhere on the course. As long ago as the final day at the PGA at Whistling Straits, McIlroy showed a vulnerability to recover from his mistakes into the greens.
Simply put Rory is still a work in progress on an around the greens.
I am not totally convinced a player can’t be completely profiled by the numbers cranked out by the PGA Tour, but when it comes to scoring, the player some described as the best out of Europe since Seve Ballesteros fails the comparison.
This year on Tour McIlroy ranks 17th in Greens in Regulation and 163rd in total birdies. He is 168th in scrambling and when he fails, he places 134th in bouncing back. In the Tour’s newest measure of effectiveness on the greens Rory is outside the top 125 with the putter in his hands. Out of the greenside bunkers he sits at 111th on Tour.
Every great player carried an eraser in their bag. They all possessed something in their game that allowed them to still be competitive when they didn’t bring their A game to the course. In Tiger Woods we are seeing a player today who puts makeup on his driver by keeping the headcover on whenever possible and relying on his iron play to keep him near the top.
Even when Tiger was unbeatable, the eraser he carried was the magnificent ability to not only survive errant shots but turn them into birdies. Remember the Verne Lundquist birdie on the 16th at Augusta and realize that followed a poor tee shot. Think of the unbelievable recovery from above the hole at 16 at Memorial and recognize it turned a bogey into a birdie.
At 24, McIlroy is well short of that sort of mastery. When Rory misses, as all golfers do, he generally pays. He may never become Raymond Floyd from the aprons or Billy Casper on the greens. Like distance and accuracy those are skills that can be upgraded but still depend on innate talents. As player who still works with his boyhood professional on swing mechanics, McIlroy might benefit from a tutor more renowned in the short game.
What was wrong with Rory McIlroy this week is what was wrong with him when he romped at Congressional and Kiawah. The old saying there are horses for courses may well apply to the young talent at this stage in his career and only recognition of his flaws and focused application to eliminating them will put him back on the course that so many had prematurely traced for him as recently as August a year ago.