McIlroy's learning curve doesn't last long in rise to top

September 01, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

NORTON, Mass. -- Is there a young golfer anywhere on the planet who learns faster than Rory McIlroy? Has another PGA TOUR player this year matched McIlroy's aptitude for self-analysis for swiftly identifying weaknesses, grasping solutions, putting them into practice and achieving fast results?

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In a word, no. And this is why the quick study from Northern Ireland has gone to the head of the class on the PGA TOUR. He absorbs the game like a sponge.

The latest proof of McIlroy's very high golf IQ, if any were needed after his 8-stroke victory at the season's final major championship last month, came at TPC Boston at the Deutsche Bank Championship on Saturday. His second straight round of 65 in this week's installment of the FedExCup Playoffs comes just a week after something of a desultory tie for 24th at The Barclays, and it is no accident or happenstance that he was able to flip the switch.

"My putting," McIlroy replied to a question about what made the difference between Bethpage Black and his seat atop the leaderboard at TPC Boston. "Yeah, I think there's been a big improvement in my putting from last week to this week."

That's an understatement.

Last week at Bethpage, McIlroy ranked 75th in the field in strokes gained-putting. Rated against the field average, he lost 6.9 strokes on the greens last week. Halfway through the Deutsche Bank, he is No. 1 in the same category, having gained 6.158 strokes in two rounds.

McIlroy, 23, is not one for major swing changes or big adjustments in his game. He has great belief in the basics of his game, a swing rhythm inherited from his father, Gerry, with simple techniques all built with Michael Bannon, his only golf instructor since he was an 8-year-old. He works on putting with Dave Stockton, now a teacher and author of books on putting -- the latest of which is entitled "Unconscious Putting." Stockton's ability to get the ball in the hole was legendary during his heyday on TOUR, and one of the things he pointed out about McIlroy after the first time he worked with him was just how fast things clicked.

"You don't have to repeat yourself much with him," Stockton said.

McIlroy already knew what the problem was last week, and rather than worry about it or tinker with anything he was doing, he assessed it honestly and went to work on feel.

Playoffs update
ROUND 2 MOVEMENT: Get the latest FedExCup updates and player movement from Saturday's second round of the Deutsche Bank Championship. Update

"I wasn't very comfortable at all on the greens last week," he said. "They weren't the best surfaces. I think everyone saw that. You're trying to deal with green speeds that are a little different and loads of spike marks. I just found it very difficult on the greens last week, and this week the surfaces are much better.

"It gives you a little more confidence that you can roll your putts at the hole a bit more."

Interesting that a kid who left school at age 16 back home in Holywood, Northern Ireland, would turn out to be something of a golf genius. His minimalist explanation for his brief academic career shows how sure of himself he was, even before he had won his first PGA TOUR event, or suffered his major disappointments in the 2010 British Open and 2011 Masters and then turned around to win the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship by eight strokes apiece.

He said simply, "I had missed so much time because of golf. I was so far behind everyone else."

McIlroy has never lingered long behind anyone. He looks like he just might have what it takes to stay in front for a while. Every golfer endures more failure than he celebrates success. It's the nature of the sport. One deals with failure, but one doesn't like it. McIlroy once expressed the sentiment the same way the young Tiger Woods did, though he chose a different trajectory for his shot.

Second stinks is roughly what the young Woods said to a national TV audience in his pro debut at Brown Deer Park Golf Course in Milwaukee in 1996. His career winning percentage of better than 30 percent has vividly demonstrated what he meant.

When McIlroy was asked how he deals with the many rebuffs that golf visits on those who would be great, he replied, "The only reason to do anything is to improve. And getting better every year, that's the goal. I've met it so far."

That he has. He will have another opportunity this weekend to test how far he's come, and he can do so against Woods, the man who was his golf role model growing up, as well as others like Louis Oosthuizen, 29, who bested him in that 2010 British Open, and Ryan Moore, and the 21-year-old Korean rookie Seung-Yul Noh.

McIlroy is in a good frame of mind this week. He is pleased to have his girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki, in his gallery, although he said he'd prefer she hadn't been eliminated in the first round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

McIlroy even joked about how Wozniacki is getting familiar enough with golf that she gave his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, a hard time when McIlroy's shot flew the first green during Thursday's pro-am. She's learning golf; he's learning tennis.

Now that McIlroy has put himself in good position to win, he'll be less focused on frivolity and more on business. He's already won two major championships four months quicker than even Woods accomplished that. But he has yet to win a Playoffs event. Another lesson to learn, and there's nobody quicker on the uptake.