Rory McIlroy Needs to Improve His Putting to Return to PGA Tour Dominance

October 20, 2015

Despite the quick turn-around into the 2015-16 PGA Tour season, the fall provides a good opportunity for the pros to identify weak spots in their games and fix them while the pressures of major championship golf are still months away. Here are three Tour stars who have a lot of work to do this offseason.

Rory McIlroy’s Putting

Rory McIlroy’s 2015 season was not exactly what he and the golf community expected as a follow-up to his amazing 2014 season. Despite not living up to anyone’s expectations on the surface, McIlroy’s season would be a success by almost anyone else’s standards — three worldwide victories, two top 10s in major championships, and the pole position in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai. However, his soccer injury and subsequent summer lay-off stripped him of his ability to defend at the Open Championship, and he was never truly a factor at the PGA Championship. However, his elite driving and top iron play returned immediately after his return from injury — indicating his ankle won’t pose any long-term problems for him. His putting, on the other hand, has been a total disaster.

In four out of five starts (including this weekend’s Open) McIlroy finished below average in Strokes Gained: Putting. In total, his record of -0.5 Strokes Gained: Putting per round over that stretch is more than three quarters of a stroke worse than his putting per round in 2014 and pre-injury 2015. Over a full tournament, he’s been spotting the field three strokes with his poor putting. That wasn’t enough to cost him any wins recently, but he would’ve captured his third major championship top 10 at the PGA Championship and a solo second at the BMW Championship if his putter had cooperated. If he can putt more like his 2014 and pre-injury 2015 self next season, he’s the favorite to don the Green Jacket next spring. If his putting develops into a long-term issue, he’s more likely to watch Jordan Spieth and Jason Day continue their dominance.

Adam Scott’s Iron Play

The constant theme when covering Adam Scott this year was the upcoming ban on anchored putters and how he would adjust to the short putter. Scott’s emergence as one of the best golfers in the world from 2012-14 coincided with his use of the anchored putter. The early returns from his non-anchored experiments suggest his putting could revert to being a major weakness, but what’s more troubling for his immediate future is the decline of his iron play. From 2012 to 2014 he combined some of the longest, most accurate drives on Tour with truly elite play with his irons to finish fifth in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green every season. In 2015, his Strokes Gained: Tee to Green fell from 1.5 to 0.6, despite hitting his drives at the same elite level. Digging deeper, he went from being one of the best on Tour to merely pretty good.

Adam Scott has remained successful before without putting well — in 2008 and 2010 he finished in the top 25 on Tour in Strokes Gained versus the field on all shots while he was one of the worst putters on Tour — but to do that again he’s going to need to maintain the long, straight drives and elite iron play that fueled his game over the past few years. Without those elements, he won’t be able to distinguish himself from the dozens of good-not-great golfers on the PGA Tour.

Hunter Mahan’s Drives

Hunter Mahan had been one of the most consistent golfers in the world over the last decade — eight straight Tour Championship appearances, six wins, and either a win or a runner-up finish in nine straight Tour seasons. His secret? He was one of the most efficient drivers of the ball on Tour. Mahan’s club-head speed has hardly broken average in recent seasons, and he just doesn’t have the power to challenge bombers like Dustin Johnson off the tee, so he’s had to rely on a few underrated skills. First, he hits driver as often as possible. Longer hitters hit fewer drivers typically, but Mahan actually hits driver on 1-2 more holes than the field in every round. Second, he’s been freakishly accurate when hitting driver. Mahan’s straight-line accuracy in 2014 was equal to some of the most accurate drivers on Tour, such as Zach Johnson and Jim Furyk.

In 2015, however, his consistency off the tee deserted him. After posting the 17th, 25th, and 36th most fairways hit between 2012-14, Mahan hit the 131st most fairways in 2015. The slightly above-average distance plus great accuracy game he showed in 2014 allowed him to rank as one of the ten most effective drivers of the ball on Tour. The slightly above-average distance plus poor accuracy he showed in 2015 barely moved the needle, and left him languishing near average off the tee. All that led to his first missed Tour Championship, his first season without a win or runner-up finish in ten years, and his worst Scoring Average since his rookie season. If he can fix his inaccurate ways off the tee, he could compete for another U.S. Ryder Cup squad and hope to get in the winner’s circle.