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Opinion & Analysis

A statistical comparison of McIlroy vs. Spieth in 2015



Last week, I showed the metrics for Jordan Spieth and what makes him so great. In response, I had a lot of readers asking for a side-by-side comparison with Rory McIlroy. In light of the news that McIlroy will miss the Open Championship due to injury, I think it is pertinent to show that while Spieth and McIlroy have two different styles of play, the loss of McIlroy helps Spieth’s chances of winning his third major in a row.

Scoring Data

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Obviously, McIlroy is a threat to Spieth because he ranks second in Total Adjusted Scoring Average. He does this by ranking first in both Adjusted Par-4 and Adjusted Par-5 Scoring Average. He has been noticeably weaker on the par-3’s this year. When looking at the past three Open Championships at St. Andrews, however, the par-5s (Nos. 5 and 14) are far more critical in terms of success than the par-3s (Nos. 8 and 11) as there is a greater deviation in score on the par-5s than the par-3s at the Old Course.

Driving Data

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The most noticeable difference in terms of style of play between the two is McIlroy hits it much farther than Spieth. People often say to me, ”When I look at their average driving distance, Player A is only 5 yards farther than Player B.” I advise against looking at the actual averages when trying to get an accurate depiction of how far players hit the ball compared to each other, however, because other metrics give a more accurate picture.

Measured drives is the old fashioned method of measuring distance; that is where players are almost always using the driver off the tee. Currently, McIlroy ranks ninth in measured driving distance versus Spieth’s ranking 73rd. So Rory is far longer than Spieth when both players are using a driver off the tee. Spieth makes up for that difference because he is more precise than Rory and hits driver more often and lays-up off the tee less. Rory is not conservative off the tee by any measure, as he ranks 68th out of 202 players in Tee Shot Aggressiveness.

If McIlroy were playing in the Open Championship, his weakness versus Spieth would be his precision (Avg. Distance to Edge of Fwy, Hit Fairway Bunker and Missed Fairway – Other percentage), but he is roughly as accurate (hit fairway percentage) as Spieth and much longer off the tee. Therefore, if McIlroy was able to improve his precision at St. Andrews, he could have had a sizeable advantage over Spieth and the rest of the field.

The other part is that most of the par-4s at St. Andrews are fairly straight. While Spieth has been very good on straight away par-4s, Rory has been flat out incredible this year… although one of the critical holes on the course is the infamous Road Hole, No. 17, which is more of a dogleg-right design. That would tend to favor Spieth over McIlroy.

Approach Shot Data

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While Spieth’s all-around performance on his approach shots is amazing, McIlroy is better than him in the Yellow (125-175), Red (175-225) and 225-275 Yards Zones. What sticks out is that Spieth is far better from the Green Zone. Typically, courses with few par-5s create a situation where par-5s become more critical in tournament play. While Spieth is an excellent player on the par-5s, we can see why Rory is the No. 1-ranked player on the par-5s. He hits it long and effectively off the tee, and he’s the best player from 225-275 yards and the third best player from the Red Zone. This could have presented a problem for Spieth.

With that being said, my research data shows that when the wind speeds pick up the Green Zone tends to become more important. The numbers indicate that this may be due to drives being knocked offline and the player having to hit more recovery shots into the Green Zone. Golfers then have to save par from that distance range. However, this research was applied to only golf courses in the U.S. I do not have any data for European courses, but I would garner that if it were to get windy out, the conditions would favor Spieth over Rory.

Short Game Data

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The Short Game is where both McIlroy and Spieth have made their largest strides. The greenside bunker shots stat is interesting, although it does not account for the length of the bunker shot. But, at a course like St. Andrews, we have to wonder what type of advantage McIlroy may have had if it came down to him and Spieth.

Putting Data

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Spieth has been the better overall putter this year, but he has mostly accomplished that through impeccable putting from outside 15 feet. McIlroy has putted much better from 3 to 15 feet, but has had a lapse on putts from 5-10 feet. When it comes to making putts, virtually nobody on Tour consistently ranks high in making putts outside 20 feet. Even ranking high from outside 15 feet is somewhat rare. The strongest correlation to Putts Gained resides on putting from 3-15 feet. So this may come back to haunt Spieth in the end if he cannot putt better from inside 15 feet. And if McIlroy had played in the Open Championship, his superior putting from inside 15 feet may have provided him with the advantage he needed to be a repeat champion.

Another interesting aspect is the difference in how McIlroy and Spieth putt when looking at their rankings in par+ versus birdie putts from 5-15 feet. McIlroy is superior on the birdie putts, but Spieth is far better on the par putts. That changes when the putts get outside 15 feet, as those are usually for birdie and Spieth is the best on Tour at making those.

Final Synopsis

The book on Spieth has been that he is “not great anything, but average at everything.” We have seen how that is a false notion, as Spieth is spectacular at the major facets of the game. On the other hand, McIlroy is often referred to as “being able to do things that Spieth cannot do when McIlroy is at the top of his game.” I tend to feel that this is a more accurate depiction, as McIlroy is an incredible all-around performer who hits the ball much farther. If he is on his “A Game,” the numbers show that he may be virtually unbeatable.

Either way, the golf world hopes that Rory comes back from his injury to his old form. This should provide a historical rivalry between these two great golfers for the next 15 years. And the game of golf will win in the end.

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Richie Hunt is a statistician whose clients include PGA Tour players, their caddies and instructors in order to more accurately assess their games. He is also the author of the recently published e-book, 2018 Pro Golf Synopsis; the Moneyball Approach to the Game of Golf. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @Richie3Jack. GolfWRX Writer of the Month: March 2014 Purchase 2017 Pro Golf Synopsis E-book for $10



  1. MikeA

    Jul 14, 2015 at 12:32 pm

    May be time to start tracking Rory’s injury stats for future comparison to Tiger’s injuries. The way Rory is bulking up (much like Tiger), he just might follow Tiger’s frequent trips to the clinic.

  2. Martin

    Jul 12, 2015 at 11:30 pm

    Thanks for the comparison! Bravo!

  3. Steve

    Jul 12, 2015 at 10:53 pm

    Is your pic a selfie? In a bathroom? I think Chris Hanson is looking for you.

  4. snowman

    Jul 11, 2015 at 10:59 pm

    Yes I agree that when Rory is at his best he is almost unbeatable… The thing is this: Speith at this point is much more consistent and how often will Rory play his best? Jordan’s
    “A” game seems to show up more often and that seems to be good enough for him. Speith will be the Arnie to Rory’s Jack…. He’ll get much more love from the fans because he’ll be the gritty underdog.

  5. dwc

    Jul 10, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    I’m not to sure about your comment that Rory at his A game is unbeatable. He is certainly very, very good. But remember Spieth at Augusta. I don’t know if that is his A game or not, but he tied Tiger’s all time record for under par and did it on a course that is probably 1,000 yards longer than when Tiger did it. He made it look easy.

  6. Mike

    Jul 10, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    If Spieth is 3rd from 15-25 feet, who is 1 and 2?! I can’t imagine anyone else making more putts from that distance then Spieth this year.

  7. jakeanderson

    Jul 10, 2015 at 3:36 am

    this is a very good article because it shows clearly that mcilroy is the best golfer in the world and spieth is really not that good.

  8. Chance

    Jul 9, 2015 at 10:49 pm

    I love Spieth and obviously am biased towards him, but it looks like the way Spieth is playing seems to be working out for him. I think consistency is what keeps you at the top.

  9. Pat M

    Jul 9, 2015 at 4:15 pm

    They are both great players but Rory is too inconsistent including personally erractic.
    I hope Rory does not end up like Georgie Best.

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On Spec

On Spec: The best gear of 2020 with guest Johnny Wunder



After a very interesting year in the golf equipment world, host Ryan Barath welcomes fellow GolfWRX writer and podcaster Johnny Wunder—of The Gear Dive—to chat about everything we saw in 2020 and what could be next.

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Flatstick Focus: Interview with the Moose



In Episode 28, we chat with leftymoose, a very diverse putter collector from Canada. He has close to 50 putters from several manufacturers and helps shed some great insight into the collecting world.

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Opinion & Analysis

What makes a golf ball curve? (GolfWRX explains)



At some point, every golfer has asked the question “Why did that shot slice? Why did that shot hook? How did that shot go straight?”

The simple answer is physics, but the actual reason is a little bit more complicated and has to do with the relationship the golf ball has with the golf club as it approaches contact, but that’s why we’re here to explain why your golf ball travels where it does.

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It’s all about spin axis – AKA “sidespin”

Spin Axis – Trackman Golf

Side spin is the commonly used, but incorrect way to describe the spin axis of a golf ball as it travels through the air. Rather than try and define it myself, I will refer to the experts at Trackman to help me explain what’s really going on.

“Spin Axis is the tilt angle relative to the horizon of the golf ball’s resulting rotational axis immediately after separation from the club face (post impact).”

“The spin axis can be associated to the wings of an airplane. If the wings of an airplane are parallel to the ground, this would represent a zero spin axis and the plane would fly straight. If the wings were banked/tilted to the left (right wing higher than left wing), this would represent a negative spin axis and the plane would bank/curve to the left. And the opposite holds true if the wings are banked/tilted to the right.”

Unlike a plane in the example used by our friends at Trackman, a golf ball has no propulsion system, and all the force that causes it to move comes from the golf club. Depending on how the club makes contact with the ball will result in how the ball will fly. It’s no different than how a tennis or ping-pong ball travels through the air after it is struck with a racket or paddle – a golf club is just a “paddle” with a much longer handle length.

Why does a golfball curve right and left?

There are 2 main factors of the impact that influence how a golfball will curve;

  • The direction the clubface is aimed relative to the target line at impact
    Face Angle

  • The direction the club is moving at the moment of impact
    Club Path

Face-to-path – How to hit a draw

So now that we have a better understanding of why the golf ball curves in one direction or the other, the video below from TrackMan and Martin Chuck does a great job explaining the relationship of face to path, and how to hit a draw.

How to hit a straight golf shot

Being able to hit a straight shot is one of the most difficult things to do in the game of golf. The reason professionals don’t intentionally hit straight shots very often is that when it’s not executed properly it can create a shot that misses both right and left and if there is one thing professionals and low handicap players like to see is a golf ball that misses in one direction.

Face Strike Point

Beyond the relationship between the clubface and path, hollow golf clubs also have another factor at play, and that is the bulge and roll – curvature of the face from top to bottom and side to side. This curvature combined with the gear effect of hitting a shot outside the sweet spot results in the club imparting a higher measured spin axis and as a result the ball curves even more.

Check out this video below by TXG demonstrating how strike location on a driver has an effect on how the golf ball curves.

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