Rory McIlroy is well aware of the realities of professional golf. He has seen the steady creep of distance numbers. He knows there are swarms of college players swinging driver 130 miles per hour. He may have even read about the 6’9 missile launcher torpedoing golf balls across the Coachella Valley this week.
But as he looks ahead to 2022, he’s trying to take a measured approach to distance off the tee.
“I’m not trying to gain speed but I’m not trying to lose any either, so it’s about trying to maintain what I have. The game has become such a power sport that these are the things that you have to do nowadays,” McIlroy said on Wednesday, speaking ahead of his 2022 golf debut in Abu Dhabi, the first DP World Tour event of the year.
McIlroy has been one of the longest drivers in the world — and arguably the best overall driver — since his professional golf debut nearly 15 years ago. He has tried to chase more distance, too; he went after more speed after Bryson DeChambeau out-brawned the field at Winged Foot in 2020.
Not this year. Asked about his goals, McIlroy said he has moved away from goals like “I want to win five times” and “I want to win the FedEx Cup,” which he used to write down on the flight to Abu Dhabi. Those have been replaced by big-picture goals, including this one: McIlroy wants to hit 60 percent of his fairways.
These days, that feels like a contrarian approach. Golf’s analytics revolution has exposed the fact that accuracy off the tee was over-emphasized for a long time. Bomb-and-gouge is the order of the day. Just this week, Colin Montgomerie and Bernhard Langer were among those players lamenting that golf has become too one-dimensional. Ripping driver is golf’s equivalent of shooting three-pointers; even if you miss more, they’re worth more when you hit ’em.
“I think the fairways hit stat is always a big one for me,” McIlroy said. “If I can hit the ball in the fairway 60 percent of the time, with how far that I hit it, I’m going to create a lot of opportunities for myself, and the more opportunities you give yourself, you know, the putts will — some weeks they’ll fall, some weeks they won’t, but I think over the last few years I’ve certainly become a more consistent putter and I certainly hole what I feel is my fair share.”
There’s a key phrase there we shouldn’t lose track of: “with how far I hit it.” A big key to McIlroy’s focus on accuracy is, of course, the fact that he already pounds the ball past most of his competitors. He already has distance taken care of, which gives him the luxury of focusing on accuracy. He’s Steph Curry working on his mid-range jumper, looking to get more efficient.
“No, I don’t need to,” McIlroy said of chasing distance. “Again, that goal of hitting more fairways, it means maybe throttling back and hitting 3-wood a little more often or hitting clubs that are maybe not as aggressive off tees and just putting yourself in the fairway. Maybe just being a little bit more of a measured and a controlled golfer.”
If that sounds explicitly different than the approach of, say, Bryson DeChambeau, that’s intentional. McIlroy is looking to a different high-profile golfer for inspiration.
“I’ll certainly pick and choose my spots where I can take advantage of the driver and hit it, but the best player of the last 30 years, Tiger, he picked and chose where he hit driver, and he played a very, very controlled game. It didn’t work out too badly for him.”
McIlroy is correct. Tiger Woods drew plenty of attention for how far he could hit driver when he first arrived on Tour, but he dominated for years while executing on what would be considered an extremely conservative game plan. Driving distance was always a strength, driving accuracy was not, and iron play was a superpower. He maneuvered his way into position. He avoided tournament-killing big numbers. McIlroy summed up his approach this way:
“I think trying to eliminate the big miss off the tee, those destructive shots where you make doubles from, reign that in a little bit and get more effective with the scoring clubs,” he said. More focus on fairways means fewer big, destructive misses. Analytics will say to hit driver frequently, if you can. But analytics will also tell you that penalty strokes aren’t great for your score.
On paper, McIlroy’s plan makes good sense. CBS’s Kyle Porter inspired a data-dive exposing the fact that McIlroy’s best statistical driving seasons (measured by strokes gained off the tee) have correlated with better accuracy. In 13 seasons measured by DataGolf, McIlroy has been significantly better than average every season. In four of his five best driving years he was more accurate than Tour average. In seven of his eight worst strokes-gained-driving years he was at Tour average or worse in accuracy.
The most recent data is compelling, too: In 2021, McIlroy had the second-longest year of his career, averaging 319.0 yards off the tee, second on Tour to DeChambeau. But he gained just 0.66 strokes off the tee, his worst year since 2009. (No need to panic; he was still fourth on Tour in that department.)
McIlroy has become drawn to these strokes gained numbers because he sees them as numbers he can control. He figures if he focuses on hitting these benchmarks, the ultimate goal — victories — will follow.
“I can certainly control if I hit 60 percent of the fairways. I can control if my numbers, my strokes gained numbers, my stats are better than they were the year before. So it’s about trying to set yourself goals that you can control, and that are objective and measurable, and I guess those are the sort of goals I’ve started to set myself the last few years,” he said.
Of course, executing Woods’ game plan requires Woods’ laser-like irons. Part of McIlroy’s game plan involves getting better in that department, too.
“I’d love to get my iron play back to a level it was at maybe a few years ago,” he said. “You know, gaining at least half a shot to a full shot on the field with approach play. I’ve done that before; I feel like I can do that again.”
McIlroy gained 0.4 shots per round with his irons in the 2020-21 season. In 2019-20, he hit that 0.5 threshold. But he may long for 2012, when he gained just over 1.0 strokes with his irons.
The takeaway here is a subtle one: This year, McIlroy will still hit the hell out of the ball. He’d just like to hit it in the fairway ever so slightly more often. You can bet he’ll finish the year as one of the best statistical drivers in professional golf. Oh, and as much as he says he’s shifting away from goals like “wins”? He’s still keeping close track of those, too.
“I’d love to win six times in a season,” he said. “I’ve never done that before. I’ve won five….”