The season of the big championships will close this weekend in Augusta, Georgia, so get closer to a high definition azaleas, a Jim Nantz overture and a musky aura of self-importance.
The 2019 Masters is not short on juicy questions. In pursuit of his first major victory in more than 11 years, is Tiger Woods about to have a green jacket for every day of the work week? Can Dustin Johnson add the Masters to his list of expired tournaments after posting three consecutive top-10s in Augusta? Could this year's winning putt possibly provoke a more tepid reaction from the gallery than Patrick Reed's in 2018?
But there is a debate that can be closed before it attracts oxygen: the most popular player on the planet is Rory McIlroy, the Irishman the size of a pint with bionic power from the tee. No one on any tour is playing better golf than McIlroy. In eight starts this season, McIlroy has one of seven top-10 finishes, including a victory in the Player's Championship. The bettors are aware, installing quotas of 8-1, the shortest of all the players, for the champion of the PGA Tour event, 15 times.
A victory at Augusta National would make McIlroy the fourth player in the modern era of golf to complete a professional grand slam before turning 30, according to the ESPN Information and Statistics Group. And there are reasons to believe that this week represents the best opportunity the 29-year-old has had to capture the green jacket that has eluded him.
With the real knocks earned, which adjust the regular strokes earned for field strength, McIlroy is playing the best golf of his career this season, achieving an average of 2.83 strokes on the field, almost a full blow better than his performance in 2018 and even more exceptional. than his 2014 campaign (+2.56), when he won three tournaments, including two majors.
|Real hits won per round|
|Season||putting up||Around green||Focus||Out of the shirt||Total|
"Rory is in a cool place right now, "said James Jankowski, a placement specialist who currently works with players on the European Tour.
Behind the blisters on the tee and the magnificent iron game, McIlroy had one of the best beginnings of a career in the history of modern golf. But for years, it has felt as if a club was holding him back: his putter.
Inexplicably, the same guy that made the driving greens in par-4 feel normal could also have five putt in Pebble Beach. "If Rory McIlroy could get it right," wrote James Corrigan last year from The Telegraph, "I would win every week." In fact, one of the most talented forwards of the sport finished the last three seasons 97, 159 and tied at 135. In strokes won per round with the putter. What is perhaps the most notable of this season, then, is that McIlroy is ranked 57 in the metric.
He is sinking 92.9 percent of his putts from 5 feet, which ranks sixth in the tour and is a total of 12.2 percentage points higher than last season. He had not ranked higher than 92th in metrics in the last three seasons. Within 10 feet, he is draining 88.3 percent of his putts, tied for 56th on the road, after finishing 64th last year. It was located outside the top 130 in the metric in 2016 and 2017.
"Mentally, it seems to be better (this year)," Jankowski said of the man who once shouted, "Who can not hit ?!" to a fanatic "Make more important putts and look more relaxed about the result."
And while those numbers could certainly decrease as McIlroy registers more rounds, he has never put this well in relation to the field at this time of the season. And in terms of the actual hits he's made, he's doing better than any previous winner since Jan. 1 until he started the Masters.
|Year||Player||Measured rounds||putting up||Total||End of Master|
|2019||Rory McIlroy||2. 3||+0.41||+3.48||?|
|2004||Phil Mickelson||2. 3||+0.37||+2.93||one|
|2006||Phil Mickelson||2. 3||+0.55||+2.84||one|
|2012||Bubba Watson||2. 3||-0.34||+2.15||one|
|2018||Patrick Reed||2. 3||+0.18||+1.18||one|
But that will be tested this weekend. Augusta's Bentgrbad slopes have a ripple that induces nightmares. Previous and current players have described playing in them as "very intimidating", "the most difficult" and "Mickey Mouse, miniature golf". The legendary golfer Ernie Els, who started the tournament six times and hinted that he could soon quit the sport. Last year, two-time Masters Bubba Watson sent an eagle putt to a bunker on the green side. "You're ashamed," Charles Coody, who won the tournament in 1971, told Sports Illustrated. "Sometimes you do things where you want to get away and hide."
McIlroy would have been forgiven if he had done that last year. He dragged Reed by three strokes into the final round, scored a 2 over par 74 and was irrelevant for the last nine. Without trusting his putter, McIlroy told reporters, "it made a big difference."
McIlroy is on the record, however, he is not putting too much value on putting, especially at the Masters. "In Augusta, you do not have to be cool," McIlroy said last year. "You should not waste any shot." He is not alone with that hypothesis, and there is more evidence pointing to that conclusion. Mark Broadie, who pioneered hit metrics, discovered that Augusta has the highest three-putt rate of all stops on the tour. However, Broadie also pointed out that because the greens are very well maintained, players also sink more putts within 10 feet in Augusta than anywhere else. The problem, then, is to hit approach shots within a reasonable distance of the flag to limit the delay putts and mitigate long-range reading errors. McIlroy has been doing just that, getting 0.97 true shots won in approach shots, the second best mark of his career. In addition, if he keeps his current numbers, McIlroy will establish a new career better in the avoidance of three putts (1.98 percent of the putts). The last 15 champions were collecting 0.18 hits on the field with the putter entering the week of the tournament. McIlroy is taking hits to more than double that rate.
Far from green, accuracy from the tee box is valuable, no doubt, but the design of the Masters does no favor to the supernatural power of McIlroy. His 263.2 yards per unit in the Masters is well below his strike averages in recent seasons and his historical averages in other golf events. Although it hits par 5 as you would expect, it has problems in par 4, where on average it is more-3.6, according to Golf Stats.
Rory's good start this season has many excited observers, though it's not uncommon for McIlroy to come out the door. When his last 11 seasons are compared to the performances of the 15 previous Masters champions, McIlroy has the three best marks in real strokes won by entering the tournament. But his performance in 2019 has been prodigious.
That McIlroy's sensational game is preparing him for a possible historic victory is made even more fascinating by the luggage that leads to the pines of Georgia. In 2011, the 21-year-old had an advantage of four strokes after 54 holes before reaching the finish line with a final round of 80, which gave him a 15th place finish. It was the highest final round by a 54-hole leader in 56 years and is still tied for the fourth highest round of McIlroy's professional career. "Rory has to fly very fast to Northern Ireland," announcer Nick Faldo said as McIlroy tapped on the last bogey of the day. "And I'm sure that your whole country will give you a big hug."
But eight years later, is this finally when he puts it all together and wins the tradition of an uncomfortable post-victory interview at Butler Cabin?
"The Masters has now become the biggest golf tournament in the world, and I'm comfortable saying that," McIlroy said last year. "I do not care about the US Open or the Open Championship, it's the biggest tournament in the world, it's the most eyeballs, the most amount of exaggeration, the biggest amount of everything is in Augusta."