Rory McIlroy ended the past season as golf’s undisputed heavyweight champ. Any ideas to the contrary were put to rest when the 23-year-old captured the 94th PGA Championship by a record eight strokes.
The way McIlroy continued to win after bludgeoning the Ocean Course seemed almost matter of fact. He won two out of the four FedExCup events with relative ease, and claimed both money titles on the PGA and European tours before striking a single shot at the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. Having accumulated so much hardware and goodwill throughout the season, nobody would’ve blamed McIlroy for coasting in his last start. Instead, he reminded the competition that he was more than capable of outworking, outlasting, and yes, out-punching them.
Unexpectedly, the glory of capping off the 2012 season with one final victory almost belonged to Justin Rose. He woke up on Sunday six shots back of the leaders and seemingly out of contention. Instead of giving into any feelings of misfortune, Rose summoned his best tee-to-green game of the season, overtaking the leaders during a back-nine stretch that included four birdies and an eagle.
His watershed moment came on the 72nd hole, the 620-yard par 5. As he had done all afternoon, Rose struck an impressive tee shot that found the center of the fairway, leaving himself a good angle for his second. Needing to close out with no less than a birdie to stave off a pursuing McIlroy, Rose muscled his approach to the back portion of the meandering green, leaving himself a lengthy putt over a steep ridge to a downhill hole location.
While Rose has improved his ball-striking year after year, his putting has consistently straddled the line between average and mediocre, never cracking the top 50 in strokes gained putting. Whether it can be attributed to working with his new putting coach, David Orr, or some new found maturity, Rose had finally started to sink some meaningful putts, none more important than the one he administered to Phil Mickelson on the final day of the Ryder Cup.
Surveying his predicament on the 18th green, Rose once again had no margin of error to work with, describing the situation as a “hero or zero” moment. As it was, his putt for eagle came tantalizingly close to stopping at the crest of the ridge. Once the ball began rolling downhill, it held the line the whole way, but it couldn’t sustain the speed. A euphoric, if slightly dismayed crowd cheered a terrific effort that came up an inch short of giving Rose slightly more than a dreamer’s chance of winning the tournament as he headed in to sign his card.
Four days earlier, when no one had any inkling that Rose would post a 62 on the final day to break the course record and add some unexpected drama, tournament officials and European Tour Chief Executive Officer George O’Grady were deliberating future format changes that could potentially ensure that the Race to Dubai wouldn’t be decided with a few laps to spare. Over in the United States, the event in Dubai had the additional misfortune of competing with the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and the NFL. So it should come as no surprise that the tournament received less than stellar fanfare even with a stacked field and no opposing golf event to compete with. American golf fans that bothered to stay awake to watch the early morning telecast or caught up later when it re-aired watched Luke Donald post a fine opening round score and take the lead over McIlroy by a stroke.
Donald had a career-best season in 2011, where he ascended to the top of the world rankings and won four events worldwide. But he had, by comparison, been treading water in 2012. Statistically, Donald had improved his driving accuracy (ranked 37th), but was slightly worse off hitting greens and making putts (the twin pillars of his game). Although he ended up winning twice, Donald was a non-factor in majors and his season was for all intents and purposes a disappointment. A win in Dubai wouldn’t have done much to change how his critics perceived him, but it would’ve given him some much-needed momentum entering the new season.
Heading into the last round, Donald led or held the share of the lead all three days, an infrequent scenario for a golfer who has been much maligned historically for his back-door top-10 finishes. To his credit, there was nothing to suggest Donald was mailing it in during that final round. He hit all but one fairway and a respectable 78 percent of the greens. He didn’t force any shots until the last hole (he found the water), when it was clearly over for him. What Donald failed to do was make enough critical putts down the stretch, a disappointment for someone who went a staggering 102 consecutive holes at the Earth Course without a 3-putt. His invincibility with the putter and the streak itself didn’t last long into Sunday’s round. Donald’s approach on the third hole found the upper portion of the green and he compounded the mistake with a poor lag putt. His four-footer for par lipped out.
Of course it didn’t help Donald to have a view of McIlroy’s back all day. On average, Donald gave up 30 yards off the tee. On approach shots, McIlroy had as much as a two-club advantage — very handy when trying to land and hold a portion of a green only slightly larger than a shed.
The Earth Course played at a shade over 7600 yards. McIlroy got around it like a pitch and putt, especially on the par fives which he played 11-under. For the week, McIlroy ranked third in driving distance. Donald was a distant 50th.
McIlroy has always been freakishly long for his height and narrow build, but he recognized the need to keep pace with the current crop of players who were spending nearly as much time in the weight room as on the driving range. He hired trainer Steve McGregor and made a serious commitment to increase his strength and durability. Although neither McGregor nor McIlroy would reveal specifics, the regimen they devised helped McIlroy get even longer off the tee. McGregor, in an interview with Golf Magazine, spoke candidly about their goals.
“Rory weighed 160 pounds [in 2010] and is now 170. That’s a 20-pound change in muscle composition, when you take into account loss of body fat. And he’s not done. He’s not where he wants to be . . . We’re talking about getting to 175 pounds or more. Why? When you increase muscle mass, you’re going to be hitting shorter irons into greens.”
The numbers support that assertion. McIlroy’s club head speed (120.21 mph) and ball speed (178.07 mph) are 10th and eighth, respectively, on the PGA Tour. It translates to him being ranked fifth in driving distance, first in birdie average and improved proximity to the hole in almost all distance categories from his averages in 2011.
McIlroy’s five worldwide wins and 16 top-10 finishes eclipse his career-best achievements in 2011. He did all of this in spite of his mid-season swoon that provoked snarky remarks about his high-profile relationship with tennis star, Caroline Wozniacki, which have since turned into engagement rumors. An apparently distracted McIlroy missed consecutive cuts at The Players Championship, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth and the Memorial Tournament. In response to the second round 79 he shot at the BMW, McIlroy acknowledged what members of the media had already surmised.
“I did not practice as hard as I might have,” he said. “I need to work hard and get it back to the level that it was leading into the Masters.”
Whether he needed the reps or perhaps out of desperation, McIlroy added the FedEx St. Jude Classic to his schedule just prior to his title defense at the U.S. Open. He also flew in his longtime swing coach Michael Bannon from his outpost in Northern Ireland for range sessions described at the time as being very productive.
McIlroy had a respectable, if not remarkable showing in Memphis and was a non-factor at Olympic the following week. He also stunk it up at the Open Championship, but at least saw action into the weekend. He finally regained his old touch at Firestone in August, finishing tied for fifth, and setting up his historic run at Kiawah where he reminded everyone that in top form, he’s more Batman than Boy Wonder.
After torching the field at the PGA Championship, McIlroy’s putter got even hotter. He won back-to-back weeks during the FedEx Cup playoffs and his 11-consecutive rounds under par proved there was more to the two-time champion than natural ability alone. After the Ryder Cup, McIlroy flew to Asia to fulfill competitive and promotional obligations. He racked up frequent flyer miles with stops at Shanghai, Singapore, Zhengzhou (playing an exhibition against Tiger Woods in China) and Hong Kong before touching down in Dubai.
Whether it was sunstroke as cited, or general fatigue, McIlroy played at less than his peak in Dubai. His ball-striking was noticeably inconsistent and he missed a number of greens with short irons or wedges. He made up for it with his scrambling, recording only two bogeys over the first three days of competition.
McIlroy did not have an impressive start to his final round (going out in 35, -1), allowing Donald to draft him at the turn. A bogey on the par-3 13th gave Donald (and especially Rose) some hope that the top player in the world might be satisfied to sign off with another top-10 finish and a big check. That might have been an apt description for a younger, less determined McIlroy in years past — the same kid who was famously quipped, “It’s not my sort of golf” when asked to explain his inability to acclimate himself to bad weather conditions at the Open.
The older, gutsier McIlroy closed out the tournament with five straight birdies, none more challenging than on the par-3 17th that allowed him to take the lead. Playing more than 200 yards into the wind and over water, McIlroy’s tee shot landed pin high for a straightforward uphill putt.
While McIlroy was being serenaded with cheers as he walked to the last tee, Rose sat in the clubhouse some hundreds of yards away. A large bucket of beer had already been brought out at someone’s behest. Rose sat beside it, with an expression that suggested he was more interested in sampling a cold one than contemplating improbable scenarios that would force a playoff. If anything, the look suggested an odd sense of satisfaction. Rose gave it his best shot. McIlroy’s counterpunch sent a clear message to his rivals — get ready for another long year.