Rory McIlroy's hot and cold putting still his nemesis
Four-time Major winner says he will figure it out himself but there is work to be done
Rory McIlroy after missing a putt on the 18th during his second round at Ballyliffin Golf Club. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye
If golf tournaments were played tee-to-green, Rory McIlroy would win most weeks. But they’re not, and the putter is the most used club of all, the one which more often than not is the deciding factor in whether trophies are lifted or left behind. Unfortunately for McIlroy, the putter is an implement that’s akin to a loose cannon in his golfing armoury. It is prone to misfiring.
In the first two rounds of the DDF Irish Open, McIlroy’s visible dismay with his putting has betrayed his attempt to maintain a facade of patience. On the ninth hole, actually the 18th, of his second round, a putt horse-shoed out of the cup and the ball’s refusal to drop led to an exasperated facial betrayal that he couldn’t hide.
On Thursday, he took 32 putts in the first round; on Friday he used his putter 34 times. It’s a serious problem, but then the putter has been the one club that McIlroy has had a Jekyll and Hyde relationship with throughout his career. It blows hot; it blows cold (too often!). It can be a favoured friend. It can be a mortal enemy.
McIlroy is not a great putter, but he can be great. It’s not as if he hasn’t tried to make the putter a magic wand. His attempts to take control have at times met with success; but failure too. He has worked with putting gurus. He has worked with Dr Paul Hurrion. He has worked with Dave Stockton. He has worked with Phil Kenyon. He has taken advice from Brad Faxon, more of a psychology lesson than a putting lesson in that case.
These days he is doing it himself. “It’s the person, it’s not the putter” is a mantra he has repeated.
Putting (and sometimes the putter) has been an issue that won’t go away. It was in missing the cut at the US PGA at Baltusrol in 2016 that he described his putting as “pathetic,” which led to the initial tie-up with Kenyon. Over the following year he went through numerous different putters in a bid to find one that suited. Blade to mallet. He putted left hand-below-right for a time, before reverting to the conventional right-below-left.
Yet if you analyse McIlroy’s putting statistics through his career the stark figure that jumps out is its sheer consistency over a season. His putting average between 2012 on the PGA Tour up to this current campaign has averaged between 1.71 and 1.77 putts.
In 2012 and 2013 it was 1.74; in ‘13/’14 it was 1.71; in ‘14/’15 and ‘15/’16 it was 1.75; in ‘16/’17 it was 1.77; and in this ‘17/’18 season it is 1.75. That’s a remarkable consistency but one which doesn’t usually result in a win. But some weeks, and sometimes for weeks, to counteract the bad weeks, it is unbelievably good.
The difference with McIlroy is an ability to produce a hot streak, as happened in his only win on tour so far this season when he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
What happened at Bay Hill only served to underpin McIlroy’s love/hate relationship with putting.
In the week before the tournament, the noted author Dan Jenkins put out a tweet that was sort-of-funny but also seemed pertinent to the player’s woes with the short stick. “Rory McIlroy leads that new PGA Tour stat, Strokes Lost Putting/Flushed Down the Toilet.” He was the butt of some kind of joke.
By the following week it seemed nothing more than a cheap shot as McIlroy made a mockery of it as he turned in a career-best performance with the putter.
What happened at Bay Hill was that McIlroy took only 100 putts over four rounds. He had switched from a mallet back to a blade-style, using TaylorMade’s TP Black Copper putter, but had also taken on board some advice from Faxon. The stars aligned to make for a master-class in putting that saw him lead the field in putting by 10 strokes.
In that tournament what was notable about his putting stroke was how non-technical it was, how natural it seemed. There was a flow to it as he let his instinct take over when he was about to putt.
That performance represented McIlroy’s best-ever with a putter in hand, better than any of his four Major wins. That was only in April. Two weeks later, at the Masters, a makeable eagle putt on the second hole missed the hole and his momentum for a run at the career Grand Slam was ended. Yet, only Patrick Reed – the winner – that week putted better.
For sure, his putting is an enigma. While he is ranked as low as 110th in putting on the PGA Tour, it is also worth noting that his season’s average on the European Tour - 28.39 - is the lowest/best it has ever been. Until this week, that is.
This week, McIlroy’s frailties with the putter have again hurt his cause.
McIlroy revealed after his first round on Thursday that he no longer works with Kenyon. “Phil and I haven’t worked together for a few months. I’ll sort of figure it out on my own, and I don’t think it is that far away because there’s a lot of putts I felt like I hit good and were just shaving the edges.”
After his second round the belief was the same. “I’ll just keep plugging myself away and giving myself opportunities, and hopefully they will fall on the weekend.”
McIlroy’s career best performances putting (average strokes gained per round against field) 1, 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational (2.51) 2, 2016 Memorial Tournament (1.83) 3, 2011 Memorial Tournament (1.78) 4, 2016 Deutsche Bank Championship (1.66) 5, 2014 Memorial Tournament (1.48)