Rory McIlroy became the No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Rankings for the ninth time in his career in 2022, yet many still considered his year a failure because he did not win one of the four major championships in which he played. McIlroy could have won 15 tournaments, but without moving his major total from four to five, his campaign would have been deemed a disappointment to some.
Is this fair? I'm not here to debate that. That's a different topic for a different article for a different day. What I want to discuss is whether this merry-go-round for McIlroy of playing great golf but coming up short in the four events that matter most will ever end.
Will Rory McIlroy, once thought to be a future seven- or eight- (or 10-time?) major winner get back on the proper side of the ledger at one of the four majors in 2023 or at any point beyond that?
Here are two things that are surprising about McIlroy's career: 1) He hasn't had that many great chances at major championships (we'll discuss this in more depth in a moment), and 2) Nearly a decade and a half into his career, he says he feels like he's searching once again for his first major win.
"My last major championship was before [wife] Erica and I started going out; it was before my ankle injury and my back injury; it was before so many things that are now a part of my life," McIlroy told Paul Kimmage of the Independent this fall. "I'm almost a different person. And I've been reflecting on this for the last couple of months and I think that's a good thing. I feel like I'm trying to win my first major again, and there's an enthusiasm and a fire about the chase again."
This undoubtedly is true. McIlroy is extrinsically motivated, and while an external goal as big as this might be an albatross for some, for McIlroy it lights a flame. The carrot in front of him, it seems, is clearer than it's been in several years. There is a world in which, perhaps, McIlroy wins multiple batches of major championships.
What's also true, at least statistically, is that McIlroy is playing the best golf of his entire career. His last 50 rounds have represented, in terms of strokes gained, his best 50-round stretch of all time, including the periods of time in which he won his first four majors.
This leads us back to the first point, which is that McIlroy hasn't had as many amazing performances at majors as you might have expected. As an aside, he has not had that many close calls, either, and those are categorically different than amazing performances. Before 2022, McIlroy had had a 25% chance to win a major going into the final round just five times in his career. He converted four of those.
In terms of great performances at majors, McIlroy had gained between 4-5 strokes -- which is a lot but not an absurd amount -- on major fields four times prior to 2022. He won all four majors. Statistically speaking, things had mostly gone his way at the majors when he played good golf (remember, Phil Mickelson once gained 6.6 strokes on a major field and lost). If his four major wins were 50-50 balls, McIlroy had come down with all of them.
This year's second at the Masters and third at The Open were the two best performances McIlroy has ever had without converting them into wins (4.22 and 3.98 SG respectively).
To go deeper on this, we turn to Data Golf's expected majors statistic, which shows how many majors you were expected to win based on your major performance in a given year. For example: If you gain 4.5 strokes per round on the field at a major, you are expected to win that major 50% of the time, so your expected major wins number would be 0.5. Add those up based on major performance in a given year, and you get an expected major wins total for that year.
Let's take a look at McIlroy's.
This is fascinating. For the first time in his career, McIlroy played well enough to potentially win a major or more and did not do so. Contrast his expected outcome this year with 2022 PGA Champion winner Justin Thomas', which was 0.11.
In other words, 2022 was the first year of McIlroy's career in which he's had an expected win total of greater than 0.1 at the majors and not won one of them. It was -- both statistically and anecdotally -- the most heartbreaking year of his career when it comes to major championships.
If a great player produces enough expected wins over time, it is, well, expected that he's going to eventually win. And if you want a glass-half-full view of McIlroy's year, it comes from his caddie, Harry Diamond. McIlroy said in the Kimmage interview that Diamond is the person who has reminded him of the fact that he's going to win majors if he continues to play at the clip.
"And it's obviously a tough loss for him too but he can see the good in it: 'Rory, you keep doing this and you're gonna win your majors.' That was it," said McIlroy. "'We're gonna do this.' And it was probably something I needed to hear because you can get sucked into that spiral of, 'It's been so long … I've just had a great opportunity … Am I ever going to do this?'"
Whether McIlroy continues to play at this current clip remains to be seen. But what is nearly definitive is the following: If he does, then he'll win a fifth major and perhaps more after that. Of the 19 players to put up an expected major total of 0.5 or more in a single year since 2015, 14 of them won major championships. The odds are overwhelmingly in your favor.
Yes, you often still have to close out final rounds, which McIlroy failed to do at The Open in July, but if you're posting a 0.5 expected major total a year, it's also possible that one of those is going to be a major where everybody else fades away (think about J.T. at the PGA Championship) and you walk away with a fifth. As always in golf, you can only control what you can control. If McIlroy does next year what he did this year, there might not be a Scottie Scheffler who puts up 4.96 strokes gained per round at Augusta. Hell, there might not be a Cam Smith who posts 4.47 at The Open. Four could become six in an instant.
So while McIlroy's major drought is about to hit nine years, his renewed desire has some numbers around it, and they're pointing toward an optimistic 2023. Sure, the famine may never end, but Diamond is right, this kind of play -- regardless of what anyone else does -- almost certainly means that at some point it will.