Examining the underrated year of Rory McIlroy

August 14, 2019
Justin Ray

Players who have accomplished as much as Rory McIlroy are set to an extremely high standard when it comes to evaluating their season-long performance.

Ultimately, history – both recent and distant – measures golf’s best by what they do in the year’s four biggest weeks, mostly ignoring the other 48. Of course, that could never tell the complete story.

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Despite not winning a major championship, when the book is closed on 2019, McIlroy’s narrative should be a glimmering one. He’s assembling one of the best statistical seasons of the last 20 years on the PGA Tour.

Take his consistency, for example. Rory leads the PGA Tour in top-ten finishes this season, with 13 – accumulating them in just 17 starts. That top-ten percentage of 76.5 is the third-highest since 2000 among players with at least ten starts that season. Only Tiger Woods in 2000 (85.0%) and 2009 (82.4%) has posted better percentages during that span.

Rory’s strokes gained total, per round this season, is 2.64. Since that statistic has been kept (since 2004), only Woods has put together better season-long averages, doing so in 2006 (3.44), 2009 (3.19) and 2007 (3.09).

Rory’s advantage over second place in that statistic currently stands at 0.58, over Patrick Cantlay. Once again, Tiger is Rory’s only peer when it comes to holding a margin that large – Woods put together bigger differences in ’07 (1.50 over Phil Mickelson), ’09 (1.36 over Steve Stricker) and ’06 (0.90 over Jim Furyk).

And with two more good weeks, Rory would win his third scoring title on the PGA Tour (McIlroy won it in both 2012 and 2014). If he does so, he would be just the ninth player to win it three or more times, and just the second player from outside the United States to do it more than twice, joining Greg Norman.

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The list of superlatives for Rory doesn’t stop there – he’s the Tour leader this season in strokes gained tee-to-green, average distance of all drives hit, and birdie conversion percentage. He leads the Tour in par 3 scoring, too: after playing par 3s in a combined 85-over-par from 2013 through 2018, he’s 11-under on them this season.

McIlroy has been stuck on four majors for more than five years now – something that he undoubtedly would like to change quickly. But in the meantime, his performance in 2019 should be roundly celebrated.

NOTES ON KEY PLAYERS IN THE FIELD

– The 2019 BMW Championship is the 50th FedExCup Playoff event held since the inception of the series in 2007. Phil Mickelson will be making his 46th career Playoff start, most of any player. Lefty has missed the Tour Championship three times in the last five years and has significant work to do to get back in 2019: he’s currently 46th in points.

Patrick Reed will try to continue his terrific ball-striking at the Playoffs’ second event: in his win in New Jersey, Reed led the field in total driving and was fourth in strokes gained tee-to-green. Reed is now one of four players under age 30 with seven PGA Tour wins including a major – the others are Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth.

Koepka mentioned to media last week that he felt uncomfortable with his putting stroke. The numbers bore that out: in the opening round, Brooks lost 3.26 strokes to the field on the greens alone. It was a stark contrast to his performance in Memphis, where Koepka led the field in strokes gained putting.

Dustin Johnson looked like he might be on his way to a third Northern Trust title last Friday, holding the outright lead through 36 holes. But his driver totally betrayed him on the weekend, as he ranked 81st and 79th in the field in strokes gained off the tee on Saturday and Sunday. Johnson finished tied for 24th, the second-worst final position of his career when holding a 36-hole lead.

Jason Day finds himself in an unexpected spot: 9th place in the Presidents Cup standings for the international team. The top-eight players in the points standings at the conclusion of the BMW Championship will automatically qualify for Ernie Els’ squad, with the remaining four captain’s choices coming closer to the event. Day – who is now 22nd in the World Ranking – has just one top-ten worldwide since The Masters.

At his best, Day is a birdie machine – he’s the all-time leader in score to par in FedExCup Playoff history at 227-under. But Jason is ranked 31st this season in birdie average, down from 9th in 2018. Day is ranked 49th on Tour this season in strokes gained putting, his worst season ranking in that statistic since 2010.

Jon Rahm currently might be the hottest player on the planet: he’s finished 11th or better in each of his last six starts, posting a scoring average of 68.4 during that span. Rahm has been in the top-20 following each of his last 16 PGA Tour rounds played and had the lead on the back nine Sunday at Liberty National before Patrick Reed caught him. Rahm is currently third in the 15th Club Performance Index, trailing only DJ and McIlroy.

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