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A funny and unexpected thing happened on this week’s episode of The bunkered Podcast.
My co-host and bunkered editor Bryce Ritchie predicted that Rory McIlroy will win The Masters this year and – at last – complete the career grand slam.
Whilst he’s a massive fan of Rory, Bryce would probably be the first to admit it’s been a long time since he started a year with much confidence, never mind this much confidence, in the Irishman. You can’t really blame him.
This time last year, for example, McIlroy was in an iffy place. His final competitive appearance of 2021 ended with him being pictured next to a window in the players’ lounge at the DP World Tour Championship, his shirt ripped from collar to sleeve, his face scowling at his phone. We’ll never know who he was texting but had it been the Samaritans, nobody would have blinked.
Fast-forward 12 months and he appears to be much more at peace with himself. Four worldwide wins in 2022 and a return to world No.1 will do that to a man – and honestly, that’s not even the half of it.
On top of those wins, his most recent seasons on the PGA Tour and DP World Tour yielded 13 top-10 finishes in 24 starts, with only two missed cuts. He was a combined 231-under-par and broke 70 in 69 of his 103 rounds. He failed to break par in only eight of his 39 rounds on the DP World Tour.
Although major glory continued to elude him, he did at least improve his performances in the game’s biggest events. His worst finish was eighth and he posted the best combined score to par of the nine players who made the cut in all four championships.
No wonder Bryce is excited.
There are many reasons for the turnaround in McIlroy’s fortunes. His putting, for example. Entering the 2021/22 PGA Tour season, he had never finished inside the top-20 in Strokes Gained: Putting. The 2018/19 season, when he finished 24th, was the only time he had finished within the top-60.
Shortly before flying out to the Middle East at the start of 2022, McIlroy made a small but noticeable change to his set-up. “I just felt like I had started to creep a little too far away from the ball,” he acknowledged. “My eye line was a little too far inside, and what happens then is my right arm leaves my side.”
The tweak, he said, “got me more ‘into’ the putts” and the numbers back that up. From 122nd in 2019/20 and 66th in 2020/21, McIlroy enjoyed his best-ever season on the greens in 2021/22, finishing 16th in Strokes Gained: Putting on the PGA Tour.
Elsewhere in 2022, he returned to working exclusively with long-time coach Michael Bannon, whilst changing ball – after missing the cut at the Valero Texas Open in April, he switched from the TaylorMade TP5 into the lower-spinning TP5x – also helped enormously and almost immediately.
In the 2020/21 PGA Tour season, McIlroy ranked 99th in Greens In Regulation and 65th in approach play from 125 to 150 yards.
In 2021/22, he was 12th in Greens In Regulation and fifth from 125 to 150 yards. In Strokes Gained: Tee To Green, he climbed from tenth to second.
Off the tee, he added almost two yards to his drives and improved his accuracy, albeit marginally, finding the fairway 58.06% of the time compared to 57.36% the year prior. He lost a little clubhead speed – a likely by-product of climbing out of the ‘Must Chase Bryson’ rabbit hole he had burrowed into – but he improved his overall driver efficiency.
In short, he became a better driver of the ball as well as a much greater threat from the middle of the fairway. Blend that with his putting gains and you’ve got a recipe for dominance.
However, arguably the biggest change is a metric that launch monitors cannot track: inner peace.
Nobody could ever accuse McIlroy of being a Zen master. He is an emotional and articulate deep-thinker. Cast your mind back to the 2019 Masters when, ahead of making a fifth pass at completing the career grand slam, he revealed that his preparation had included reading books by Og Mandino and Ryan Holiday. It’s this innate curiosity and thirst for knowledge that makes McIlroy such a fascinating interview – but was it also the biggest impediment to his progress?
He started working with acclaimed sychologist Bob Rotella early in 2021 and saw that relationship pay dividends last year. He acknowledged as much ahead of September’s Italian Open.
“I definitely feel like Bob has helped me unlock a couple of things within my game that were maybe lacking for the last couple of years,” he said. “He’s a great man and a wonderful character. I love talking to him. Even if we don’t really talk about golf that much, you’re always going to learn something. He’s got so many incredible stories, and I definitely think he’s helped me bring more of like a relaxed focus to my game that I maybe didn’t have for the last couple of years.”
The LIV-sized chip on his shoulders has unquestionably been good for McIlroy, too. The emergence of Greg Norman’s Saudi-funded enterprise poured a jerrycan of petrol on the competitive fire that burns within him. It made him more determined, more resolute, and more tenacious in his desire to win and be the best.
And right now, that’s exactly what he is: the best.
Will that culminate in a new green jacket for his wardrobe? Time well tell. But Bryce is confident – and justifiably so.
To get more from Michael, follow him on Twitter: @MMcEwanGolf
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