Approach play holding Rory back since restart

July 28, 2020
Justin Ray

When the PGA Tour season halted back in March, Rory McIlroy was soaring.

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He had even consecutive top-five finishes worldwide, a stretch that included a win at the WGC-HSBC Champions. Analytically speaking, he was stellar, too: ranked in the top-three on Tour in strokes gained approach, tee to green and total. His greens in regulation percentage of 71.06% was on pace to be the highest of his professional career. With Augusta National right around the corner, Rory looked primed to possibly finish off the grand slam in 2020.

By McIlroy’s immensely high standards, his play hasn’t been as sharp since the season resumed. McIlroy has finished outside the top-ten in all four of his starts – he only had six such finishes worldwide in all of 2019.

Rory’s iron play has been the biggest reason behind his recent dip in performance: before the break, McIlroy ranked 18th on Tour in greens in regulation for the season. Since the restart, he’s an un-Rory-like 112th. Strokes gained approach numbers have seen a similarly precarious drop, from 3rd before the break to 74th since. Rory has not ranked in the top-25 in strokes gained approach in any of the four events he’s played in the ‘Return to Golf.’

A silver lining, though: the last time McIlroy finished outside the top-ten in four consecutive worldwide starts was in early 2018. In his next event, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, he won.

COURSE CHARACTERISTICS

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The shift in calendar position – and massive upgrade in field strength – yielded some different numbers in 2019 at TPC Southwind. The jump to WGC status had to play a role in the scoring average dropping a full shot from 2018 (70.52 to 69.50). Field driving accuracy jumped 6%, while greens in regulation went up 3% in 2019 from the previous year.

TPC Southwind had the third-lowest one-putt percentage (44.6%) of any course on the Tour last season, an indicator of fewer birdie opportunities and more difficult greens to hit in regulation.

This tournament is almost always an evaluator of who is striking the ball best that week: six of the last eight winners here led the field in strokes gained tee to green. Winners here the last decade have an average strokes gained off the tee rank of 12.5, a significant jump over the Tour average in that same span (18.9).

IN THE FIELD THIS WEEK

– Newly minted world number one Jon Rahm makes his first career start while in the top spot this week. The other Spaniard to reach the OWGR summit, Seve Ballesteros, made his first start as world number one at the 1986 Italian Open, about a month after the inception of the ranking system. Ballesteros finished tied for fourth that week in an event won by the loquacious David Feherty.

Players have performed well in recent years when occupying world number one for the first time: Dustin Johnson notably won the WGC-Mexico Championship in 2017, then won the WGC-Match Play in consecutive starts. In 2018, Justin Thomas finished tied for 8th at the Memorial, Justin Rose finished tied for 4th at the Tour Championship, and Brooks Koepka finished 16th at the WGC event in China.

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– How about some love for Rahm’s incredibly consistent play since turning professional? Consider this: of the current top-ten in the world ranking, Rahm has the fewest career worldwide starts as a pro (95). He has finished either first, second or third in more than 25 percent of his worldwide starts in that span, with nearly as many wins (10) as missed cuts (11).

Depending on the results this week in Tennessee, Rahm could enter the PGA Championship as the number one player in the world but seeking his first major win. Only two players have won their first career major while ranked number one in the OWGR: Ian Woosnam and Fred Couples, who each did it at Augusta in 1991 and 1992.

Tony Finau contended again last week at the 3M Open, but ultimately finished tied for third, three shots behind Michael Thompson. That’s now a staggering 30 top-ten finishes for Finau over the last four PGA Tour seasons, but no victories in that span. Four other players have 30 or more top-tens in that stretch – Rory, DJ, Justin Thomas and Rahm – that quartet has combined to win 29 times since the 2016-17 season started.

Only one player in the last 40 years has had more top-ten finishes in a four-year span on the PGA Tour without breaking through with at least one victory. That was Jeff Maggert – who from 1994 through 1997 racked up 31 top-tens but didn’t have a win.

Over the last two seasons, Finau’s ball-striking numbers in the final round are nowhere near what he’s been able to do in rounds one through three. From tee-to-green, Tony has averaged 1.35 strokes gained in rounds 1-3 – but in the final round, that number drops to 0.16. That’s the rough equivalent of dropping from 11th on the PGA Tour to 126th.

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Approach play – and not driving – is the primary culprit, where Finau sees a similar Sunday plunge. In the first three rounds, he averages 0.70 strokes gained approach per round. Sundays, he actually loses strokes to the field (-0.13). That’s equivalent to a drop from the top-15 on Tour to about 140th.

– In his win here a year ago, Brooks Koepka not only had a terrific week tee to green but put together one of the best putting weeks of his pro career. Brooks averaged 2.34 strokes gained putting per round, the second-best average he’s ever had over a 72-hole event. Koepka will need better iron play if he hopes to successfully defend both this and next week’s titles – since play resumed, he ranked 115th on Tour in strokes gained approach.

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

From 1999 through 2013, Tiger Woods played in 42 World Golf Championship events. He won 18 of them, a clip of 42.9 percent. In the three WGC stroke play events, Woods was a combined 262-under-par, 154 strokes better than any other player. Only three players were within 200 shots of Tiger.