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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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Podcasts

Jason Day’s performance coach, Jason Goldsmith, joins the 19th hole

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In this episode of the 19th Hole, Jason Goldsmith of FocusBand talks about how the breakthrough technology has helped PGA Tour stars Jason Day and Justin Rose to major wins. Also, host Michael Williams gives his take on Tiger Woods’ return to golf.

Click here to listen on iTunes!

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Courses

Ari’s Course Reviews: Oakmont Country Club

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Editor’s Note: Ari Techner is a well-traveled, golf-course connoisseur who’s setting out to review the best golf courses in the world. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are his own. 

Oakmont Country Club. The name alone strikes fear into the heart of any mortal golfer. Oakmont has a reputation for difficulty unmatched in the golf world; it’s fear forged in the public’s eye while watching best players in the world struggle during the U.S. Open every 10-plus years or so. There is a notion that Oakmont could hold a U.S. Open just about any day of the year. This is not a course that needs to be tweaked from its daily setup to test the best in the world.

All that said, a close look at the course reveals that there is so much more to Oakmont than just difficulty. Since around 1950, MANY courses have been built with the dilebrate intention of holding a U.S. Open. Most, if not all, of these courses are filled with water hazards, extremely long holes and very little variety. Oakmont is the exact opposite of that, and this is what is at the core of its greatness.

A view from the ninth fairway

Oakmont Country Club first opened in 1903 and was designed by Henry Fownes, who built it because he felt the other courses around Pittsburgh were not difficult enough. The course was constantly tweaked in the early years by Fownes and his son William. Both Fownes were accomplished players with William winning the U.S. Amateur in 1910 and serving as the playing captain of the first U.S. Walker Cup team in 1922.

Trees, or no trees?

The 18th tee

The course was extremely influential in the development of early golf courses in America. It was equally influential in future years by setting trends that have changed the way many other courses have evolved. When Oakmont opened, it was built in an open field and had no trees on the course, adding to the links-like flavor that Fownes wanted from his visits overseas. In the 1950s (after all the Fownes had left the club) Oakmont added thousands of non-native trees to line the corridors of the holes, a look that was a heavy trend of the time. This work was mostly done by Robert Trent Jones, who also modified the bunkers to fit more of his style of the time.

The course continued to evolve over the years with the bunkers being restored by Tom Fazio… but the trees remained. In preparation for the 2008 U.S. Open, Oakmont cut down thousands of trees, returning the course to its open, windswept origins. This was very controversial among the members, and much of the work was done in the middle of the night in the off-season so as not to cause a big stir. After 2008, thousands more trees have been cut down, opening all of the amazing long views across the property. You can see almost every hole on the property from just about every spot on the course. Oakmont was the first course to embrace this massive tree removal and it has turned into a trend with hundreds of classic courses removing their non-native trees and going back to their more open original layouts.

Oakmont is the only course that Fownes designed and I believe that contributes greatly to its uniqueness. Fownes’ version of difficulty did not include artificial water hazards, out of bounds or excessive bunkering fronting greens, and it did not rely simply on longer-than-average holes to challenge the golfer. Instead, it has an amazingly varied mix of holes that challenge the golfer in a variety of ways both mentally and physically. Overall, the course requires you to be a straight driver of the ball, a good iron player and to have a deft short game and putting touch. You also need to be able to think your way around the course while you execute the shots you choose at a high level.

A good variety

Oakmont has its share of length with long par 4s, such as hole Nos. 1, 10, 15 and 18, the monster par-5 12th and long par 3s such as Nos. 8 and 16.  What sets the course apart to me, however, are the short holes and the holes that require strategic decision-making off the tee. These include short par 4s such Nos. 2, 11 and 17 and mid-length par 4s including Nos. 5 and 14.  These holes can be just as difficult as the long ones, and they require a completely different skill set.  The short par-3 13th and short par-5 9th (plays as a par 4 for the U.S. Open) round out what is an amazing set of shorter holes.

A view of the ninth fairway from across the Pennsylvania Turnpike

The course uses the natural movement of the site very well and has a tight, extremely walkable routing despite being bisected by the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the bottom of the hill in the middle of the property. I particularly love the fallaway greens at 1, 10, 12, and to a lesser degree 3 and 15 where the front of the green is higher than the back. This is a unique look that you do not see in the USA very often. Without the little backboard that a back-to-front sloping green provides, you must hit the ball solid or execute a well played run-up shot to hold the green. The short par 4s temp the long hitter just enough to make them think about hitting driver, but wayward shots are punished enough to make most think twice. The 17th, at a little under 300 yards, could be the hardest hole on the course, and yet it is definitely drivable for the right player who hits a great drive. The small and extremely narrow green requires a short shot be hit the perfect distance if you decide to lay up to the right down the fairway. Hit it even a little short and you end up in the aptly named “Big Mouth” bunker which is extremely deep. Hit it a hair long or with not enough spin to hold the green and you end up rolling over the green into one of a few smaller bunkers. Carry the bunkers on the left side off the tee into the sliver of fairway up by the green and you have a short, open shot from a much better angle into the fatter part of the green. Such risk/reward and great use of angles is paramount to Oakmont’s genius.

Green complexes are…complex

The green on the 18th hole

Oakmont also sports one of the best sets of greens anywhere in the world.  They are all heavily contoured and very challenging, yet playable. You can certainly make putts out there if you are putting well, but get on the wrong side of the hole and you are left with an extremely difficult, but rarely impossible 2 putt. They are also very unique due to Fownes only designing one course, as they do not look like any other classic course; they have a feel all their own. They are mostly open in front, coming from the correct angle, and they have many squarish edges. They also cut the tight fringe far back into the fairway, which aids in run-up shots; it also gives a great look where the green and the fairway blend together seamlessly.

The bunkering is also very unique and very special… and they are true hazards. Find yourself in a fairway bunker off the tee, and you are likely wedging out without much of any chance of reaching the greens. The green-side bunkers are fearsome, very deep and difficult. The construction of the bunkers is unique too — most of them have very steep and tall faces that were built up in the line of play. Oakmont is also home to one of the most famous bunkers in golf; the “Church Pews” bunkers — a large, long rectangular bunker between the fairways of holes 3 and 4 with strips of grass in the middle like the pews in a church. There is also a smaller “Church Pews” bunker left of the fairway off the tee on hole 15. Hit it into one of these two bunkers and good luck finding a descent lie.

Ari’s last word

All-in-all, along with being one of the hardest courses in the world, Oakmont is also one of the best courses in the world. It is hard enough to challenge even the best players in the world day-in and day-out, but it can easily be played by a 15-handicap without losing a ball. It is extremely unique and varied and requires you to use every club in your bag along with your brain to be successful. Add that to a club that has as much history as any other in the county, and Oakmont is one of golf’s incredibly special places.

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Coming Up: A Big Golf Adventure

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My name is Jacob Sjöman, and I’m a 35-year-old golf photographer who also enjoys the game we all love. I will be sharing some experiences here on a big golf trip that we are doing. With me I’ve got my friend Johan. I will introduce him properly later, but he is quite a funny character. According to Johan, he is the best golf photo assistant in the world, and we will see about that since this is probably his biggest test yet doing this trip. Previously on our trips, Johan almost got us killed in Dubai with a lack of driving skills. He also missed a recent evening photo shoot in Bulgaria while having a few beers too many… and that’s not all.

Anyway, the last couple of days I’ve been packing my bags over and over. I came home from the Canary Islands this Sunday and I’ve been constantly checking and rechecking that we’ve got all the required equipment, batteries, and that the cameras are 100 percent functional and good to go for this golf trip. I’m still not sure, but in a couple of minutes I will be sitting in a taxi to the airport and there will be no turning back.

Where are we going then? We are going to visit some of the very best golf courses in New Zealand and Australia. There will be breathtaking golf on cliffsides, jaw-dropping scenic courses, and some hidden gems. And probably a big amount of lost balls with a lot of material produced in the end.

I couldn’t be more excited for a golf journey like this one. Flying around the globe to these special golf courses I’ve only dreamed about visiting before gives me a big kick and I feel almost feel like a Indiana Jones. The only thing we’ve got in common, though, is that we don’t like snakes. Australia seems to be one of the worst destinations to visit in that purpose, but all the upsides are massive in this.

First, we will take off from a cold Stockholm (it’s raining heavily outside at the moment) and then we will do our first stop at Doha in Quatar. Then after two more hours, we are finally heading off to Auckland on the north island of New Zealand, a mega-flight of 16 hours. I believe that could very well be one of the longest flights available for a ordinary airplane. I need to check that.

Flights for me usually mean work, editing photos from different golf courses I’ve visited, writing some texts, editing some films, and planning for the future. Last time, though, I finally managed to sleep a little, which is a welcome progress for a guy that was deadly scared of flying until 2008.

Now, I am perfectly fine with flying. A few rocky flights over the Atlantic Sea to Detroit helped me a lot, and my motto is now, “If those flights got me down on the ground safely, it takes a lot of failures to bring down a plane.”

Anyway, I hope you will join me on this golf trip. Stay tuned!

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