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Rory, DJ at the forefront of golf’s paradigm shift

6 Min Read


Rory, DJ at the forefront of golf’s paradigm shift

Their decade-long success – fueled by dominance off the tee – shows golf can be won with a driver

    Written by Cameron Morfit @CMorfitPGATOUR

    Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson long-drive compilation

    It’s no secret why Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson are favored to beat Rickie Fowler and rookie Matthew Wolff at the TaylorMade Driving Relief charity match at Seminole Golf Club.

    Just look to the long game.

    Shorter approach shots, the ability to blast through the wind, the intimidation factor – power has many built-in advantages, even if Seminole isn’t overly long at 6,836 yards. McIlroy and Johnson, who have 38 PGA TOUR victories between them, have had a virtual lock on the Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee statistic over the last four years, with McIlroy finishing No. 1 in 2019 and ’16, and Johnson in 2018 and ’17.

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    In fact, their dominance in that category essentially spans an entire decade. From 2010-19, McIlroy ranked first in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee three times, was second twice (and would’ve been second two other times had he met the minimum number of rounds played) and was sixth three times. Meanwhile, Johnson also ranked first three times, second three other times and inside the top 6 on three other occasions.

    Their success – 38 combined PGA TOUR wins – and improved statistical metrics over that last decade have disproved the old chestnut “Drive for Show, Putt for Dough.” Eight of the top 12 in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee last season (including McIlroy and Johnson) qualified for the 30-man TOUR Championship. Just two of the top 12 in Strokes Gained: Putting did so.

    “I think we’ve both gotta be up there in top drivers of the golf ball right now,” Johnson said when asked about his partner in a conference call with reporters Thursday. “He’s a great driver of the ball; he hits it long, he hits it straight. When we do these competitions at the TaylorMade shoots, we’re usually within a couple yards in terms of distance.”

    Added Fowler: “I won't argue with DJ; he's one of the best drivers of the golf ball in the game.”

    Anecdotally, the importance of SG: Off-the-Tee is best illustrated by Johnson’s win over Jordan Spieth on the watery first extra hole at THE NORTHERN TRUST in 2017. With a helping wind, Spieth hit what he thought was a pretty good poke 314 yards down the fairway.

    Johnson took a much more aggressive line and covered the lake with a 341-yard beauty, leaving himself just a lob wedge for his second shot, which he hit to four feet for an easy birdie.

    Game over.

    “When he lined up over there,” Spieth said after the round, “and hit the drive, I was -- at that point, I have to try and make par best I can, and I'm just hoping; I’m at such a disadvantage.”

    (Spieth needed a 7-iron to reach the green, and his approach wound up 25 feet from the pin.)

    Asked about Johnson’s power, even McIlroy admitted this week, “I do marvel at it … every time I see him on TOUR I say, ‘Don’t get drawn into a driving competition.’”

    Not that McIlroy can’t hold his own. He drove the green at the 412-yard 12th hole at the (7,500 feet elevation) World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship in February, a tee shot that Golf Digest called “one of the most memorable of all big-time drives.”

    What’s more, while winning three times on the way to the FedExCup last season, McIlroy hit a TOUR-leading 58.6 percent of all drives over 300 yards. He hit 57 drives 320-plus in the FedExCup Playoffs alone. Mark Broadie, the Columbia Business School professor and pioneer of Strokes Gained analytics, called him the clear No. 1 among the straightest long-hitters.

    “Rory’s combination of distance and accuracy gives him a massive five-stroke head start in each event he plays,” Broadie wrote for, “and it’s what makes him hands down the most deadly bomber out there.” And longer driving, Broadie has proven, trumps increased accuracy.

    Reached by phone for his take on the upcoming match, Broadie said he likes McIlroy and Johnson for more than just their superior and crowd-pleasing driving.

    “I look for Strokes Gained: Total,” he said, “and they are about a stroke better than Rickie and Wolff, which is significant, but it’s skins, which makes it a bit more random or unpredictable.”

    In addition to carryovers in the better-ball four-ball format, the cozier venue (on only 140 acres) could also potentially lessen a power advantage. Bethpage Black it isn’t. Indeed, McIlroy had barely finished praising Johnson’s power when he added: “For us though, Seminole isn’t that kind of golf course.”

    Even if it’s a second-shot course, Broadie still gives McIlroy the nod.

    “I have him No. 1 in approach shots in 2020, No. 6 in 2019,” Broadie says. “He’s just better than the other three in approach shots. If there are going to be some holes where the driver is taken out of their hands, then approach shots become a little bit more important.”

    Is there any facet of the game that favors the underdogs?

    “Rickie Fowler has an advantage as far as putting goes,” Broadie says.

    One more potentially interesting wrinkle: Team Rory/DJ are not first and second in SG: Off the tee this season. McIlroy was sixth when the season was suspended after the first round of THE PLAYERS Championship in March, and Wolff was next best at 11th.

    Johnson, returning from knee surgery, was at 27th, and Fowler was 63rd.

    How important is power? Brendon Todd, a two-time winner this season, said last week, “If you’re going to be 20-win guy with a handful of majors, distance is very important. … But to win once a year, to be competitive, you don’t have to be a bomber.”

    What you need, he added, is a great short game.

    In other words, you’d like Team Rory/DJ over the long haul, perhaps at a four-round tournamentlike the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, which they’d talked about entering together. Over 18 holes, though, in a quirky skins format, on a little-known but reportedly smallish course? You’d still have to give them the edge, but perhaps not quite as much of one.


    Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson have dominated the Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee statistical category the previous decade. Here is how they ranked each season from 2010-19.

    SeasonRory's rankingDJ's ranking

    *Unofficial ranking; did not meet minimum number of rounds

    Cameron Morfit began covering the PGA TOUR with Sports Illustrated in 1997, and after a long stretch at Golf Magazine and joined PGATOUR.COM as a Staff Writer in 2016. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.

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