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Opinion & Analysis

A look back: McIlroy’s knockout year

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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.

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Rusty Cage is a contributing writer for GolfWRX, one of the leading publications online for news, information and resources for the connected golfer. His articles have covered a broad spectrum of topics - equipment and apparel reviews, interviews with industry leaders, analysis of the pro game, and everything in between. Rusty's path into golf has been an unusual one. He took up the game in his late thirties, as suggested by his wife, who thought it might be a good way for her husband to grow closer to her father. The plan worked out a little too well. As his attraction to the game grew, so did his desire to take up writing again after what amounted to 15-year hiatus from sports journalism dating back to college. In spite of spending over a dozen years working in the technology sector as a backend programmer in New York City, Rusty saw an opportunity with GolfWRX and ran with it. A graduate from Boston University with a Bachelor's in journalism, Rusty's long term aspirations are to become one of the game's leading writers, rising to the standard set by modern-day legends like George Peper, Mark Frost and Dan Jenkins. GolfWRX Writer of the Month: August 2014 Fairway Executive Podcast Interview http://golfindustrytrainingassociation.com/17-rusty-cage-golf-writer (During this interview I discuss how golf industry professionals can leverage emerging technologies to connect with their audience.)

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  1. Rusty Cage

    Jan 2, 2013 at 8:24 am

    Golf Channel is replaying the final round of the DP World Tour Championship on Wednesday, January 2nd at 1 PM EST.

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Opinion & Analysis

A new NCAA transfer rule gets passed… and college coaches are NOT happy

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New rules just keep on coming from the NCAA; college coaches are not happy about this one.

In a summer of block buster coaching changes, the NCAA has done its best to stay atop the news cycle by making some significant changes, which will impact the recruitment process. In an article two months ago entitled “The effect the NCAA’s new recruiting rules will have on college golf,” I spoke to college coaches about a new rule, which will not allow unofficial or official visits until September 1 of the players Junior Year. To go along with this rule, the NCAA has also put in place a new recruiting calendar which will limit the sum of the days of off campus recruiting between a head and assistant coach to 45 days starting August 1, 2018.

The 45-day rule will have several potential impacts for both recruits and assistant coaches. For recruits, it is likely that after a couple (2-3) evaluations, coaches will make offers and ask for speed responses to ensure they are not missing out on other options. I also think you will see far less assistant coaches recruiting, which ultimately hurts their opportunities to learn the art of recruitment.

The new transfer rule

In the past, players were subject to asking their present institution for either permission to contact other schools regarding transfer, or a full release.

Now, starting October 15, players can simply inform their institution of their intensions to leave and then start contacting other schools to find an opportunity. This is a drastic shift in policy, so I decided to poll college coaches to get their reactions.

The poll was conducted anonymously via Survey Monkey. Participation was optional and included 6 questions:

  1. New NCAA Legislation will allow players to transfer without a release starting October 2018. Do you support this rule change?
  2. Do you believe that this rule will have APR implications?
  3. Who do you think will benefit most from this rule?
  4. What are the benefits of allowing students to transfer without a release? What are the potential harms?
  5. New NCAA Legislation will make December a dead period for recruiting off campus. Do you support this legislation?
  6. What implications do you see for this rule?

In all, 62 Division I golf coaches responded, or about 10 percent of all Division I coaches in Men’s and Women’s Golf. The results show that 81.25 percent of DI coaches said that they do NOT support the rule change for transfers.

Also, 90 percent of coaches polled believe that the rule will have APR implications. APR is Academic Progress Rate which holds institutions accountable for the academic progress of their student-athletes through a team-based metric that accounts for the eligibility and retention of each student-athlete for each academic term.

The APR is calculated as follows:

  • Each student-athlete receiving athletically related financial aid earns one point for staying in school and one point for being academically eligible.
  • A team’s total points are divided by points possible and then multiplied by 1,000 to equal the team’s Academic Progress Rate.
  • In addition to a team’s current-year APR, its rolling four-year APR is also used to determine accountability.

Teams must earn a four-year average APR of 930 to compete in championships.

While the APR is intended as an incentive-based approach, it does come with a progression of penalties for teams that under-perform academically over time.

The first penalty level limits teams to 16 hours of practice per week over five days (as opposed to 20 over six days), with the lost four hours to be replaced with academic activities.

A second level adds additional practice and competition reductions, either in the traditional or non-championship season, to the first-level penalties. The third level, where teams could remain until their rate improves, includes a menu of possible penalties, including coaching suspensions, financial aid reductions and restricted NCAA membership.

Clearly coaches are not happy about the move and feel that the rule unfairly benefits both the student athletes and major conference schools, who may have a swell of calls around middle of October as Student athletes play great fall golf and look to transfer. Although coaches are unhappy about the new rule, it is very difficult to predict what direct impact the rule will have on teams; coaches are extremely smart and understand recruiting and development within the frame work of college better than anyone can imagine. As a result, I think coaches will react in many ways which are impossible to predict.

The survey also asked, “new NCAA Legislation will make December a dead period for recruiting off campus. Do you support this legislation?” For this, coaches were more divided with 45 percent in favor of the rule, and 55 percent not.

Although coaches supported the legislation, many (41/62) suggested that it would potentially hurt international recruiting at tournaments like Doral and the Orange Bowl and they had, in the past, used December as a time to recruit.

As we move forward with these changes, here are some potential things that recruits, and their families should consider, including consequences of the rules:

  1. With a limit of 45 days and these transfer rules, it is likely that coaches will be doing significantly more investigation into a player’s personalities and family situation to make sure they know what they are getting.
  2. Coaches may also start skipping over better players in favor of kids they think will be a good fit and are likely to stay
  3. Rosters may get bigger, as coaches are trying to have larger numbers to potentially offset transfers

Unfortunately, we enter a new era of rules at the worst time; we have never had a more competent and deep group of college coaches, the clear majority of whom are tremendous stewards of the game. Hopefully this rule will have insignificant effect on the continued growth of college golf but only time will tell.

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Opinion & Analysis

Is golf actually a team sport?

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Do a little research on the top PGA Tour players, and what you’ll see is that most (if not all of them) employ a team of diverse professionals that support their efforts to perform on the golf course. Take two-time major champion Zach Johnson; he has a team that includes a caddie, a swing instructor, a sports psychologist, a physiotherapist, an agent, a statistician, a spiritual mentor, a financial adviser… and of course his wife.

“I know this seems like a lot, and maybe even too much,” Johnson readily admitted. “But each individual has their place. Each place is different in its role and capacity. In order for me to practice, work out and just play golf, I need these individuals along the way. There is a freedom that comes with having such a great group that allows me to just play.”

My best guess is that Zach Johnson commits hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to this team, and I assume most players on the leading professional tours are making significant investments in their “teams.” There are three questions that jump out at this point. First, is a team necessary? Second, how can anyone compete without one? And third, how to pay for it?

From the club player to the collegiate player to the aspiring/touring professional, everyone can benefit from a team that offers individual instruction, support, guidance, and encouragement. Such a team, however, needs to be credible, timely, beneficial and affordable.

To be affordable, serious golfers should build their team one piece at a time. The obvious first choice is a swing coach. Golf swing coaches charge from $100-$1,500 per hour. The cost explains why players have historically been responsible for their own practice. The next piece, which is a newly developing trend, should be a performance coach who specializes in the supervision of practice, training and tournament preparation. Performance coaching on-site fees range from $200 to $3,000 per day.

So is team support essential for a player to be as good as he/she can be? My research says it is. When a player schedules a practice session, that session is usually based on what the player likes to do or wants to do. “Best Practices” utilized by world-class athletes suggest strongly that great progress in training always occurs when someone other than the player writes, administers and supervises the programs and sessions. The team approach says the player should focus on what needs to be done. Sometimes what the player wants to do and the things needed to be done are the same thing; sometimes they aren’t.

Now for the question of how to pay for it all. Wealthy players, or those with substantial or institutional support, have access to what they need or want… whatever the cost. If you use an on-site coach, teacher or other professional you will be paying for blocks of time. Fees can be hourly, weekly, monthly, yearly or lifetime arrangements based upon several factors. If your coach of choice is not local, you can also incur travel and per diem expenses. The process of paying for someone’s time can really add up. You can review what I charge for various services that require my attendance at edmyersgolf.com.

For those of you who don’t have easy access to on-site expertise or don’t want to incur the expense, I want to offer an approach that business, industry, colleges/universities and entrepreneurs are turning to: “Distance Coaching.” Distance learning is made possible through modern technology. In today’s world, expertise can be delivered using FaceTime, Skype, texting, email and (old fashion) phone calls. Textbooks, videos, specific programs and workbooks can be accessed from anywhere at any time by anyone with a desire to do so… and who knows what’s coming in the future. Through Distance Coaching, individuals can employ professional expertise on an as-needed basis without incurring huge costs or expenses.

The primary team expenses that can be avoided are those associated with face-to-face, on-site visits or experiences. Distance Coaching brings whatever any player needs, wants or desires within financial reach. For example, a player in Australia can walk onto the practice ground and have that day’s practice schedule delivered to a personal device by his/her performance coach. The player then forwards the results of that session back to the coach — let’s say in Memphis, Tennessee. The player is then free to move onto other activities knowing that the performance, training and preparation process is engaged and functioning. In the same vein, that same player in Australia may have moved into learning mode and he/she is now recording the golf swing and is sending it to the swing teacher of choice for analysis and comment.

So what is the cost of Distance Coaching? Teachers, trainers and coaches set their own fees based upon their business plan. Some require membership, partnership or some other form of commitment. For example, I offer free performance coaching with the purchase of one of my books or programs, as do others. Where face-to-face, on-site fees for performance coaching is available for $200 a day, the same expertise from the same coach can cost as little as $50 a month using the distance format, tools and technology. I highly recommend that players responsibly research the options available to them and then build the best team that fits their games, desires and goals. I’m happy to forward a guide of what to look for in a performance coach; just ask for it at edmyersgolf@gmail.com.

Back to Zach Johnson; he recently admitted that his lack of recent success could be traced to his lack of focus and practice discipline. Additional, he concedes that he has been practicing the wrong things. “It goes back to the basics,” he said. “I have to do what I do well. Truth be told, what I’m practicing now is more on my strengths than my weaknesses.”

Zach Johnson has a great team, but as he concedes, he still needs to put in the work.

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Opinion & Analysis

What is “feel” in putting… and how do you get it?

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You’re playing a course for the first time, so you arrive an hour early to warm-up. You make your way toward the practice green and you see a sign at the first tee that reads, “GREEN SPEED TODAY 11.”  That brings up two issues:

  1. How did they arrive at that number?
  2. How is that information valuable to me?

How did they arrive at that number?

They used what’s known as a stimpmeter — a device that’s used to measure the speed of a green. With a stimpmeter, the green’s surface is tested by rolling a ball down the 30-inch ramp that is tilted downward at a 20-degree angle. The number of feet the ball rolls after leaving the ramp is an indication of the green’s speed. The green-speed test is conducted on a flat surface. A total of three balls are rolled in three different directions. The three balls must then finish within eight inches of each other for the test to be valid.

For example, if the ball is rolled down the ramp and were to stop at 8 feet, the green would be running at an “8.” Were the ball to roll down the ramp and stop at 12 feet, the green would be running at a “12.”

Stimpmeter history

The stimpmeter was invented by Edward S. Stimpson, Sr., a Massachusetts State Amateur Champion and former Harvard Golf Team Captain. After attending the 1935 U.S. Open at Oakmont, he saw the need for a universal testing device after watching Gene Sarazen, who was at the top of his game, putt a ball off the green. He was of the opinion that the greens were unreasonably fast, but he had no way to prove it — thus the motivation for creating the invention.

The device is now used by superintendents to make sure all of their greens are rolling close to the same speed. This ensures that golfers are not guessing from one putt to another if a green is fast or slow based on the way it is maintained. The device is also used by tournament officials who want to make sure that green speed is not too severe.

Do Stimp readings matter for my game?

Not very much. That piece of abstract knowledge is of little value until you can translate it into your own personal feel for the speed of the putt. There is a method that will allow you to turn green speed into a legitimate feel, however, and you don’t even need a stimpmeter or a stimp reading to do it. I call it “Setting Your Own Stimpmeter.”

Before we get to how to do it, the first step is to determine if the putting green is the same speed as the greens on the course. The best source of information in this regard are the professionals working in the golf shop. They will be happy to share this information with you. You only need to ask. Assuming that the speed of the putting green is close to the speed of the greens on the course, you are ready to begin setting your own stimpmeter. This is done by inputting data into your neuromuscular system by rolling putts and visually observing the outcome.

Contrary to what most golfers believe, a golfer’s feel for distance is based in the eyes — not in the hands, which only records tactile information. It’s just like basketball. On the court, you look at the distance to the hoop and respond accordingly. While you would feel the ball in your hands, it doesn’t play a role in determining the proper distance to the hoop. Based on what you saw with your eyes, you would access the data that had been previously inputted through shooting practice.

Setting your own Stimpmeter

  1. Start by finding a location on the putting green that is flat and roughly 15 feet away from the fringe.
  2. Using five balls, start rolling putts one at a time toward the fringe. The objective is to roll them just hard enough for them to finish against the edge.
  3. You may be short of the fringe or long, but it is important that you do not judge the outcome— just observe, because the feel for distance is visually based.
  4. You should not try and judge the feel of the putt with your hands or any other part of your body. You can only process information in one sensory system at a time — that should be the eyes.
  5. You should continue to roll balls until you’ve reach the point that most of them are consistently finishing against the fringe. Once you can do that, you have successfully set you stimpmeter.

The key to the entire process is allowing yourself to make a subconscious connection between what your eyes have observed and the associated outcome. You must then trust what you have learned at a sub-conscious level. A conscious attempt to produce a given outcome will short-circuit the system. When it comes to judging speed, you must be prepared to surrender your conscious mind to your sub-conscious mind, which is infinitely wiser and more capable of calculating speed. Want proof? Work through the steps I’ve outlined below. .

  1. After having loaded the data as described in the exercise above, pace off a 25-foot putt.
  2. Using the same five balls, putt to the hole as you would normally using your conscious mind to control the outcome.
  3. Mark the location of the five balls with a tee pushing them down until they are level with the surface of the green.
  4. Allow your eyes to work slowly from the ball to the hole while clearing your conscious mind of any thought.
  5. Using the same five balls, putt to the hole allowing your subconscious mind to control the outcome.
  6. Compare the proximity of the five putts that you just hit to those marked with a tee. What do you observe?

Did you have trouble clearing your mind of any conscious thought? Assuming that your conscious mind intruded at any point, the outcome would be negatively affected. You should then repeat the exercise but this time, emptying your mind of any thought. You will have mastered the technique when you are able to quiet your conscious mind and allow your subconscious to take over.

This technique will improve your proximity to the hole on longer putts. And you know what that means? Fewer three-putts!

Editor’s Note: Rod Lindenberg has authored a book entitled “The Three-Putt Solution”  that is now available through Amazon. 

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