In a world where so much attention is heaped upon the true thoroughbreds of the sport (it's all that's been talked about for a month!), it's very easy to remember that not even all superstars are created equal. Because he was so good at such a young age and for such a long time, Rory McIlroy's achievements have become normalized, as if they are no more or no less impressive and important than the other top golfers in the world. However, a slight tweak, an in-control victory and a single stat from the Wells Fargo Championship were a reminder over the weekend that even in a game that is beginning to disproportionately reward exclusivity, one player stands alone historically.
When 2020 started, McIlroy went on a tear before the COVID-19 pandemic turned the sports world on its head. Nobody who played at least 10 rounds from Jan. 1 to when the PGA Tour shut it down at The Players Championship gained more strokes per round. The only problem is that his tear resulted in exactly zero wins. It was four straight top-five finishes but no trophies, which is truly all that affects the legacy of somebody like McIlroy. This, he (and we) realized, was a problem.
"I think back to the start of 2020 when I would play great when the pressure was off and then I'd play not so good on a Sunday even though I felt like I was playing better and the results would suggest that," said McIlroy.
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After the PGA Tour restarted in June, he could not find the game that he'd had for most of the last two years; nobody gained more strokes from April 2018 to April 2020, and nobody was all that close. He popped up at the U.S. Open and Masters in November but fell way back as 2021 started, missing cuts at The Players Championship and a more normal April Masters. When McIlroy misses cuts, it can feel far more catastrophic than it actually is because his baseline play is so high (more on that below).
In the interim, he hired swing coach Pete Cowen, whose fee structure (as recently as two years ago he only charged pupils when they finished in the top 10 of events) is as famous as his immense success an instructor. The result, according to McIlroy, is not just a tweaked swing (a commitment to hitting a fade off the tee, he says) that resulted in him finishing 9th in the field from tee to green on the week, but also a tweaked swing thought that carried him to the finish line on Sunday at Quail Hollow.
"The work that Pete and I have done over the last few weeks again ... today under pressure I had a couple of things to fall back on, which was really important, especially under pressure," said McIlroy. "Needing to hit good shots down the stretch, I had a couple of very playable swing thoughts that I've had all week. Pete and I did some good work last week in Florida, and I felt good about my game coming in here ... obviously, I wasn't expecting to come and win first week straight out again. It's satisfying to see the work is paying off, but it's just the start. There's so much more I want to achieve and so much more I want to do in the game. But this is, as I said, it's nice validation that I'm on the right track."
"I'm more excited about this [than the good play start to 2020] because this is the first real test that I've had since working with Pete and sort of doing some different stuff," McIlroy added. "For it to pretty much hold together all afternoon, first time of asking, I'm excited about that."
Sometimes the very best ones need nudges, not wholesale changes. That has always been -- and likely always will be -- true of McIlroy, which is why the Cowen marriage is a good one.
"When it comes to the golf swing, improvement is good, change is bad," Cowen once said.
Changing Rory would be like taking apart a Tesla and hoping you remember where all the parts go. Tweaking Rory would be like updating the software so the self-driving feature stays working. Everybody involved is smart enough -- to both McIlroy's and Cowen's credit -- to know which of those paths to go down and which not to, even after a handful of missed cuts.
McIlroy's baseline -- the place where he exists when he's simply average -- is a joke. He's been inside the top 15 in the world for 588 straight weeks. By definition, his average play is as better than a top-15 golfer in the world. Average! But it gets better. According to Data Golf, only McIlroy (2.05) has averaged 2.0 or more strokes per round since the start of 2010 (Dustin Johnson is second at 1.8). He has been more or less the best player in the world for more than decade, without any lapses outside the top 15 in the world -- like Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and others have had.
So it's all about small adjustments, like the one that led McIlroy to hit 43 of 54 greens in regulation over the last three days at Quail Hollow Club. Like the one that led to him leading the field in scrambling and playing wisely to all the proper spots on the course. The very best sometimes only need a nudge in the right direction. A reminder of the plan and a reiteration of what they should be thinking about and considering.
And that nudge from Cowen could lead McIlroy down an interesting path. On the week of his 32nd birthday, he won for the 19th time in 196 PGA Tour events (including four majors). For context, Phil Mickelson, one of the 10-15 best golfers of all time, won for the 21st time in 277 PGA Tour events -- including zero majors -- the week after turning 32. Oh, and the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island where McIlroy won it by eight back in 2012 starts next week.
Let's presume for a moment that McIlroy, who is now the favorite there, wins the second major of 2021 next week. We've seen him go on these absolute benders before where the hole looks to be the size of a salad bowl and his shoulders are shaking with every step. If that leads to a 20th PGA Tour win at Kiawah, it would also be his fifth major championship. Here's a list of all the men who have won 20 times on the PGA Tour and five majors.
- Tiger Woods
- Jack Nicklaus
- Walter Hagen
- Ben Hogan
- Gary Player
- Tom Watson
- Gene Sarazen
- Sam Snead
- Arnold Palmer
- Lee Trevino
- Byron Nelson
- Phil Mickelson
McIlroy could make that list of 12 a list of 13 if he wins Kiawah. It's astonishing to think about him adding his name to that group of all-time greats, but that's what's in front of the man who has "so much more" he wants to do in the game. Sometimes the very best only need a nudge in the right direction, and what's worrisome for the rest of the world of golf is that the best player of this generation seems to have gotten one with three majors on deck in the next two months.