A golfer who is happy with the way he is putting does not use three putters in four days at a PGA Tour event, as Rory McIlroy did last month at the Travelers Championship. McIlory, a four-time major winner, made the cut that week and shot 64 Sunday, then proceeded to miss the cut at the European Tour’s Irish Open and Scottish Open leading up to the British Open.
It’s July, but an analysis the McIlroy’s putting at this point needs to be taken with a grain of salt because of its small sample size. McIlroy missed several events in the spring because of injury, so he has played only 16 measured rounds on the PGA Tour this season. He has official stats but has not played enough to have an official ranking in statistical categories.
Strokes gained categories were not measured at the British Open, so his rounds there didn’t count toward his measured season averages.
With that understood, McIlroy’s strokes gained: putting average this season is .026. Contrary to what some people might think, that is an improvement from his 2016 season-ending average of -0.207 (135th on the PGA Tour).
As shown in this chart, McIlroy has finished five of the past eight seasons with a strokes gained: putting average that is negative, which means his performance on the greens was worse than the average player on the PGA Tour. He has been an elite player for years, but rolling the rock has never been his strong suit.
The 2014 season stands out. McIlroy’s average was 0.274, and he ranked 41st in strokes gained: putting. He gained just more than a one-shot advantage over 72 holes over the average Tour player on the greens that year and won the British Open, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and PGA Championship. He also was the runner up at the Honda Classic and the Tour Championship.
But McIlroy’s 2014 season was an anomaly. He never had putted that well before, and he has not putted that well since. Holding McIlroy to that standard for a season is probably unrealistic.
With such a small sample size, it is difficult to identify the problem with McIlroy’s game over the past few months. While he is driving the ball well, his short-game performance has gone down, with his strokes gained: around the green average slipping from 0.211 (ranked 36th) last season to -0.1, which as of Monday would be tied for 141st if he had played enough round to qualify for an official ranking.
Even when McIlroy goes low, as he did shooting 64 Sunday at the Travelers, it’s frequently his ballstriking that is key, not his putting. That day outside Hartford, McIlroy averaged 336 yards per tee shot, hit 12 of 14 fairways and 17 of 18 greens in regulation. It was his best day off the tee and from the fairway, which offset a strokes gained: putting of -0.081 for the day.
You did not read the end of that last sentence incorrectly. McIlroy shot 64 while, statistically, putting worse than the average Tour player that day. The average distance of his made putts was just 5.33 feet, and four of his seven birdie putts came from inside 4 feet.
McIlroy also dramatically holed a putt at the Tour Championship last season to win and capture the FedEx Cup, but had a strokes gained: putting average for the week of -0.426, which ranked 13th in the 30-man field.
The good news for McIlroy and his fans, as far as the putter goes, is that looks have been deceiving in 2017. He seems to be lacking confidence and might experiment with putters, but by his standards McIlroy is putting better than his normal and is capable of shooting low scores without relying on great putting.
And when he struggles, as he did so mightily on the opening nine at the British Open, don’t blame his putter.
(Note: This story appeared in the July 24, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)