Consistency pays off for McIlroy, Im in end-of-season races
September 11, 2019
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
Rory McIlroy surprised with Player of the Year award
Rain fell, wind gusted, yardages varied, temperatures yo-yoed, birds and children squawked at inopportune times, and grasses changed from coast to coast.
In other words, the 2018-19 PGA TOUR season was typical, all of which goes to explain why the seasons of Rory McIlroy and Sungjae Im were so impressive. For their consistency from start to finish, they were named PGA TOUR Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year, respectively, on Wednesday despite stiff competition.
The Player of the Year race was especially tight.
“I thought that Brooks winning the PGA Championship was going to be the difference,” McIlroy said Wednesday of Koepka’s POY chances after McIlroy had won the TOUR Championship and the FedExCup, for the second time, last month – stamping an exclamation point on a season that also saw him win THE PLAYERS Championship and RBC Canadian Open.
Rest assured McIlroy has seldom been so happy to be wrong.
How did he pull the upset, winning POY for the third time? Greatness, yes, but what really put him over the top was consistency.
"This speaks volumes of what PGA TOUR players think is important," McIlroy said. "I think players don't just feel that four weeks a year is important; it's more than that. ... It's a huge vote of confidence that we play for more than what the narrative suggests."
Like McIlroy, Koepka won three times – THE CJ CUP @ NINE BRIDGES, PGA Championship, World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational – but unlike McIlroy, he brought his A game to the majors. He was a terminator at Bethpage Black (1), fought to the finish at the Masters (T2) and U.S. Open (2), and finished T4 at The Open.
Conventional wisdom said that would probably put him over the top. The judges – their fellow TOUR pros – were no doubt impressed but chose to reward something else. It wasn’t just the quality of McIlroy’s wins, it was also his 14 top-10 finishes in 19 starts, plus his TOUR-leading Strokes Gained: Total of +2.55, the number of strokes by which he beat the field average each day. His career-high, it was also the highest SG: Total of this decade.
Although it’s tempting to say that consistency won out over flash, McIlroy’s consistency WAS flashy. That’s because even for the best players in the world, the cone of probability – to use a popular term of the moment – is pretty wide. They miss cuts. They have off-weeks.
Not so for McIlroy, and consistency matters for POY because golf lends itself to no such thing.
How good was his season? Consider that when Tiger Woods won PGA TOUR Player of the Year in 2009, also without winning a major, he had 14 top-10 finishes in 17 starts, only a marginally higher percentage (82 percent) than McIlroy (74).
The difference was Woods won six times that season, and his Strokes Gained: Total was +3.189.
“The Holy Grail is three,” McIlroy said.
His consistency owes partly to his embrace of stoicism, the practice of steering away from big, emotional reactions. He’s also been trying to limit his sessions with his swing coach, Michael Bannon, to non-tournament weeks. And he has improved his Strokes Gained: Putting in each of the last three seasons, going from 159th (-.304) in 2016-17 to T24 (+.425) last season.
“I could have won more,” he said.
That’s true, but there’s also something to be said for being in the mix.
The last four weeks of the season tilted this POY race toward McIlroy. He went into the final round of the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational one up on Koepka but lost to his rival by six. Four weeks later, Koepka went into the final round of the TOUR Championship one up on McIlroy but lost to his rival by six. How’s that for symmetry?
McIlroy won in March, June and August. His seven-consecutive top-10 finishes from the Sentry Tournament of Champions to the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play made him the first to record seven straight since Luke Donald in 2011. (Donald also was voted Player of the Year.) His flashiest bit of consistency came off the tee, where McIlroy hit a TOUR-leading 58.6 percent of his drives over 300 yards, and 57 drives 320-plus in the FedExCup Playoffs alone.
“It’s really impressive to watch,” said Koepka after he’d shot 72 to finish T3 at the TOUR Championship. “Like I’ve said multiple times, he’s the most fun to watch when he's playing well. He hits it so good, he putts it really well, and when he’s on, man, he’s tough to beat.”
Sungjae Im's 2019 swing analysis
Im, on the other hand, has not yet won. He was one of five rookies who advanced to the BMW Championship, the others being Collin Morikawa, Cameron Champ, Adam Long and Wyndham Clark. Three of those, Morikawa, Champ and Long, had already won a tournament, as had another rookie who didn’t make it to Medinah for the BMW, Martin Trainer.
And yet only Im made it to the TOUR Championship, eventually finishing 19th in the FedExCup. In a sense, the Rookie of the Year race ended right there.
History tells us that since the inception of the FedExCup in 2007, just twice has the eventual Rookie of the Year not qualified for East Lake: Rickie Fowler in 2010, and Chesson Hadley in 2014. But no one has won Rookie of the Year without also having the most FedExCup points.
Im, the Korn Ferry Tour Player of the Year in 2017-18, played in a staggering 35 tournaments last season, with 16 top-25 and seven top-10 finishes. He spread those out from October (T4 at Safeway Open) to August (T6 at Wyndham Championship), and his clutch 66-67 weekend at the BMW (T11) ensured he would advance to the season-ender at East Lake.
“Congratulations to Sungjae on being voted 2019 PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year,” said PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan. “His ‘Ironman’ season was remarkably consistent from start-to-finish, and his fellow players raved about his all-around game throughout the year. Like so many Korn Ferry Tour graduates, he arrived on the PGA TOUR prepared to compete with the world’s best, and his season was a reflection of a maturity beyond his 21 years.”
Oh, he also got his driver’s license and enjoyed all those gorgeous courtesy cars along the way. All in all, not a bad rookie season for the 21-year-old from South Korea.
Said Im, “Being the first South Korean player, and even the first Asian player to receive the award is pretty special. That’s incredibly significant for me. This will give me a lot of confidence down the road. I’ll be reflecting on this day for a very long time.”