What Rory McIlroy’s lesson with Tiger Woods tells us about both players

rory mcilroy and tiger woods at 2023 masters

Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods at the Masters last month.

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The latest example of the softening of Tiger Woods’ machete-sharp edges came by way of a text message to Rory McIlroy in the wake of the Wells Fargo Championship earlier this month. During McIlroy’s unremarkable performance — he broke 70 just once on his way to a T47 finish — Woods noticed some deficiencies in McIlroy’s swing, and he had some thoughts about how to solve for them. But Woods’ coaching didn’t end there. On Friday of last week, according to Golf Channel’s Eamon Lynch, McIlroy visited Woods’ Jupiter Island, Fla., home, where the two golfing giants popped the hood on McIlroy’s swing and went to work tightening the screws. Overseeing the repairs was McIlroy’s longtime coach Michael Bannon. Ah, to be a fly on that range.

“When you’ve got the greatest player of all time giving you some advice, you’re not going to turn that down,” McIlroy told Golf Channel’s Kira Dixon at the PGA Championship on Tuesday. “So that was really cool.”

No, that was, in fact, really, really, really cool. It was Tom Brady giving a mid-season throwing lesson to Patrick Mahomes. Or Larry Bird summoning Steph Curry to refine Curry’s shooting mechanics. Or Jeff Gordon putting his arm around Denny Hamlin and saying, “Listen, D, you should think about taking corners like this.”

The last time we saw Woods was at the Masters, where he was hobbling around Augusta National and feeling so much pain in his right foot that he was forced to withdraw before the resumption of the rain-delayed third round. The last time we heard from Woods, or from his team anyway, was a couple of weeks later, on April 19, via a social-media update filled with scary medical terminology: “Tiger underwent a subtalar fusion procedure to address his post-traumatic arthritis from his previous talus fracture…[he] is currently recovering and looks forward to beginning his rehabilitation.”

And so the cycle has gone with Woods of late: another return to competition, another injury, another surgery, another rehab period during which we hear little about his progress and wait with bated breath for his next comeback. Woods’ session with McIlroy, though, does tell us something: Woods isn’t just watching golf during his recovery — he’s analyzing it, processing it, and likely aching to get a club back in his own hands, too. And in the meantime? Might as well apply his beautiful golfing mind to help someone else’s game. Next thing you know, a duo with 19 majors between them were collectively putting a polish on one of the game’s most dynamic and explosive swings. Can you imagine this happening during Woods’ prime? Of course you can’t, because Woods would have sooner sung show tunes at a press conference than brought a competitor under his wing.

“Two guys talking about the golf swing like we always do,” McIlroy told Dixon, understating a scene that any golf nerd would have sacrificed a digit to sit in on. “Just a couple of little things in the swing that he noticed that he hadn’t seen before.”

McIlroy didn’t say what those things were, but in his Tuesday press conference at Oak Hill, he did provide some insight into why his game has been less than sharp in his last couple of starts. “Yeah, just club getting a little bit out of position at the top and then sort of the sequence of events that follow from there,” he said. “Clubface was getting a bit too open on the way back, really struggling to square it on the way down, and then sort of re-closure was getting a little too fast, throwing my hands on it, and sort of started to get the miss going both ways, especially at Quail Hollow.”

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And the fix?

“Trying to sort of tighten the start lines up a little bit, keep a little bit more strength in the clubface, feel a little bit more squareness throughout the swing,” he said. “That’s sort of what I’ve been working on over the last week or so.”

Presumably aided by his time with Woods. Whatever mechanics McIlroy, Woods and Bannon honed, McIlroy walked away from the session feeling energized by Woods’ counsel. “Once I talked to him, I was really excited to go to the range to work on some stuff,” McIlroy said. “It gave me a new level of enthusiasm going on into these next few months. That, along with Michael being there just keeping an eye on things, I thought I had a really productive week last week.”

Make no mistake, McIlroy is not in panic mode. Far from it. Nor should he be. His strokes gained stats this season paint a picture of a player who is in near-complete command of his swing. He’s in the top 20 on Tour in three key SG categories (Off-the-Tee, Approaches and Around the Green), and is 4th in SG: Tee-to-Green. He’s also leading the Tour in driving distance, at a mighty 328.2 yards per poke.

McIlroy’s bugaboo: putting. As good as he’s been from the tee and fairway, he’s been just as poor on the greens, ranking a lowly 172nd in SG: Putting. He’s been underperforming from virtually every distance, but perhaps most alarming are his round-by-round stats. In first rounds this season, he’s averaging a solid 27.86 putts. But that number has crept up to 28.71 in second rounds and 28.60 in third rounds. Sundays have been even worse. In fourth rounds, he’s averaging 29.60 putts, which ranks 165th on Tour. It’s hard to win any tournaments, let alone majors, with a putter that won’t cooperate under pressure.   

This week brings McIlory’s latest chance to snap a major drought that no one saw coming when McIlroy, then 25, won this very tournament nine years ago. Since that Sunday at Valhalla, Mcllroy has gone 0-for-31 in golf’s four biggest events. Big, burly Oak Hill feels like a favorable course for McIlroy’s big, burly game, and it’s also kinda-sorta a home game for him, with his wife, Erica, hailing from Irondequoit, just north of downtown Rochester, and McIlroy an honorary member at the host club.

But we’ve also been down this road before with McIlroy. With all signs pointing to a promising major week, time and again he has failed to deliver his best stuff. No one knows that better than McIlroy himself, which is why he’s now trying to come into these weeks feeling less pressure to perform.              

“Less expectations,” McIlroy said Tuesday when asked what he’s working on in the space between his ears. “Just sort of trying to be in a good spot with taking what comes and not thinking about things too much, not getting ahead of myself. Just trying to go out there, play a good first hole of the tournament, and then once I do that, try to play a good second hole and just sort of go from there.”

McIlroy’s first hole in this 105th PGA Championship will begin at 8:11 a.m. local time Thursday, alongside Collin Morikawa and Justin Thomas.

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