3 things I learned from Rory McIlroy’s impressive 20th PGA Tour win
Welcome to Play Smart, a game-improvement column that drops every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from Game Improvement Editor Luke Kerr-Dineen to help raise your golf IQ and play smarter, better golf.
“Being me is good enough.”
That was the sentiment from Rory McIlory after his victory at the CJ Cup over the weekend, and clearly, he was right: Strutting down the fairway, ripping high draws that traveled a country mile, and capping it all off with a hot putter. Watching Rory be Rory is always a joy because — like every true artist — every iteration of good-golf-playing Rory is slightly different. Did we see anything new with this latest reinvention that could give us clues for what we may see more of in the future?
Let’s break it down.
1. The draw was his stock shot
A slight mea culpa on this, as I’ve written before: I was tempted by the idea of Rory hitting more fades off the tee. I thought it may be a way of smoothing-out the bad rounds, when Rory would tend to lose shots out to the right. Apparently, Rory was allured by the idea, too. He came into this season trying to hit more trusty fades, and what we all got was the worst of both worlds: A fade pattern with hands that were too active, leading to lots of double-cross pull-draws.
Perhaps it was a worthwhile experiment — sometimes you have to scratch the itch in order to re-focus on what’s best — because as I wrote about recently: Rory seems to have settled back into a push-draw as his stock shot. It’s something he knows how to manage, and when Rory talks about “being me,” this is how it manifests itself in his golf swing.
Rory back in the push-draw slot 😍🙌 pic.twitter.com/unDGjlHgxM
— LKD (@LukeKerrDineen) October 18, 2021
The lesson for the rest of us? Know thyself. If something feels natural to you, and it works, don’t fix what’s not broken.
2. Finding creative ways to attack
But it’s too simplistic to say Rory’s singular key to success was hitting a draw all the time. On the contrary: While his draw may be back to being his stock shot, some of his best shots came when he was intentionally trying to hit different kinds of shots. His high fade to hold the green on the 342-yard par-4 12th, for instance, or his knockdown draw to 16 feet on the 17th.
Most players are hardwired to try to do one thing well, but as DECADE Golf’s Scott Fawcett says, Rory is a unicorn who, like Tiger, works the ball both ways more than his peers. With his confidence coming back, he seems to be leaning into it:
“I’m going to try to hit a fade on holes that dictate that that’s the way you should play the hole and I’m going to try to hit a draw on holes or hole locations where it dictates that you should hit a draw,” he said last month, “most players in this field and most players on Tour should be good enough to be able to work the ball both ways
It’s different than how he played golf when he first came on Tour, but shotmaker Rory is what we got at the CJ Cup, and as we saw, put Rory in pin-seeking, attack mode where he plays best.
3. Avoiding mental errors
People’s best qualities also tend to give rise to their worst. On the course, Rory is at his best when he’s cocky, daring, and free-wheeling. When he’s not, his game can look sloppy, tempestuous, and mercurial, rife with the kind of mental errors that drive those of us at home bonkers.
But this week, none of those unforced errors were to be found. Rory had a laser focus on avoiding mental errors. He was so keyed-in on the details that he was talking about incredibly specific “bad habits” of his, like not leaving his ball short when he’s short-sided with a bunker in between.
“I sort of had this bad habit recently of when I’ve short-sided myself and have to come over a bunker, I’ve predominantly left them short, so I’ve tried to pick a more aggressive landing spot. So even just saying to yourself, just land it by the pin and if it rolls out 20 feet, at least give yourself a putt.”
In that same press conference he also talked about putting from off the green more, and said his only error of the day came not with execution, but with a poor club selection.
“I feel like I made one mental error today, which was on the 5th hole. I tried to hit driver off that tee after making a bogey on the 4th hole beforehand. Then I just said to myself going up that fairway I need to be more disciplined. So the word of the day after that was ‘discipline’ and I got myself in the right frame of mind after that.”
It’s easy to have discipline when things are going well, and you get rewarded for doing the unglamorous things well. It gets harder when things aren’t going your way, and ripping up the plan out of anger looks like an appealing option. Rory’s success serves as a good reminder for the rest of us: Great golf is boring golf. And the key to playing boring golf is to play have the discipline to make smart choices, even when the shots aren’t perfect.
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