A closer look at Rory McIlroy's relative struggles over the past 13 months

When Rory McIlroy failed to make up three strokes against Gary Woodland in the final round of the 2019 Sentry Tournament of Champions while playing alongside him in the final pairing, the narratives were predictable if not downright rote. Rory can't close. Rory isn't what he used to be. Rory doesn't have it anymore. And so on.

McIlroy, who again trailed and did not lead going into Sunday's action, actually would have had to have shot a 9-under 64 to even tie eventual winner Xander Schauffele, but regardless his 1-under 72 was uninspiring at best. And the rhetoric flowed.

There is truth to the reality that McIlroy isn't the golfer he was in 2014 relative to the rest of professional golfers. In that historic 2014 season, he gained 2.3 strokes on the field per round, which is an elite number. Here's how it's gone since then.

  • 2014: 2.3
  • 2015: 1.8
  • 2016: 1.7
  • 2017: 1.2
  • 2018: 1.4

He's currently at 1.7 in 2019 through four rounds. So while he hasn't won from out of the final group over the past 13 months (he's 0 for 7), he also hasn't been as good overall as he was in 2014-2015. Those numbers seem to be less about what Rory is doing in the final round than what he's doing in all four rounds.

But what of the seven final pairings he's failed to capitalize on? Not all final pairings are created equal. There's a difference when you lead the field at, say, the Memorial and when you're down five to a top-10 player at Augusta National. We talk about them as if they're the same, but they're worlds apart.

Here's a look at where McIlroy stood after 54 holes in those seven final pairings in which he is 0 for 7 when it comes to wins. He only led or co-led one of them -- the 2018 BMW PGA Championship -- and he trailed by three in four of the seven.

Event54-hole leaderStrokes McIlroy trailed byScore

Dubai Desert Classic

Haotong Li

1

-3

Masters

Patrick Reed

3

+2

BMW PGA Championship

McIlroy and Francesco Molinari

0

-2

WGC-Bridgestone Invitational

Justin Thomas

3

+3

BMW Championship

Justin Rose

1

-2

Tour Championship

Tiger Woods

3

+4

Tournament of Champions

Gary Woodland

3

-1

This, to me, shows why the "can't win out of the final pairing" narrative has been a bit overplayed. In four of those events he was trailing top-25 players by three or more strokes. You're not supposed to win out of that position, even if you're Rory McIlroy. In another one, he was trailing the No. 1 player in the world by a stroke, and in the two he should have or could have won on the European Tour, he shot a combined 5 under.

Is this the sign of somebody who doesn't have it mentally on Sundays? Maybe, but I don't really see emphatic statistical evidence as it relates to wins. What I do see is somebody who, put aside the wins and losses, has not played his own personal best golf on Sundays.

Let's dig a little deeper. If you look at Round 4 scoring average, McIlroy has in fact faltered compared to not only 2014 Rory but also 2016 Rory and 2017 Rory. He ranked in the top 20 in final round scoring on the PGA Tour from 2014-17 but fell all the way to 54th in 2018.

  • 2014: 17th
  • 2015: N/A
  • 2016: 3rd
  • 2017: 9th
  • 2018: 54th

So yes, that's notable. And to compound what's going on in Round 4, he ranked No. 1 on the PGA Tour in Round 3 scoring average in 2018. When you shoot a 65 followed by a 73, it's going to look a little worse than shooting a 68-70 even if you end up with the same score. It also explains how he's gotten into those final pairings and then stalled out.

So there are dueling themes going on here. On one hand, McIlroy maybe would have been statistically favored to win one or two of these events so I can't draw from his 0-and-7 record and say, "See, it's gone!" But on the other hand, his rhythm at 72-hole events when you want to peak on Sunday afternoons has just not been there. He knows as much as he said last year, "My problem's been playing in the last group. I've just not played well in those situations. If I ever get that figured out, I could be dangerous."

The fear here is that someone who is introspective and incredibly self-aware starts to become hyper cognizant of this narrative, which leads to more poor play on Sundays. Last Sunday at Kapalua, though, he said that wasn't really an issue, especially compared to 2018.

"My attitude was much better today, I didn't press at all, I was very patient, it's just something I'm going to have to persist in," McIlroy said. "Just keep putting myself in these positions and honestly, I don't think anyone could have beaten Xander today. I would have had to have went out there and shot 9 under par at the time. So obviously I could have shot a better score, but I did what I wanted to do. I gave myself plenty of chances, I hit most of the fairways, I hit most of the greens, just couldn't get the ball to drop."

He sums it up well. Winning even when you're around the lead is crazy difficult and he needs to play better on Sundays. It's both, not one or the other. Because the great (and often infuriating) thing about golf is that you can control everything you can put your hands on and try to guide your way home to myriad wins and trophies, but unlike other sports you have absolutely no control over what anyone else does. McIlroy knows he has to play better late to add to his resume, but even if he does there's no guarantee it will go how he wants it to go.

CBS Sports Writer

Kyle Porter began his sports writing career with CBS Sports in 2012. He covers golf, writes poetry about Rory McIlroy's swing, stays ready on Tiger watch and loves the Masters more than anyone you know.... Full Bio

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