British Open 2011: Is Rory McIlroy the next Tiger Woods?

The stadium scene.
July 13 2011 6:04 PM

Is Rory McIlroy the Next Tiger Woods?

What the advanced golf stats say about the game's young star.

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Steve Stricker, one of the Americans favored to win the British Open this week, offers a sharp example of the long game's importance. Stricker has always had a world-class short game and an above-average putting stroke. He didn't become an elite golfer, though, until 2006, when he improved his driving and longer iron shots. After Stricker's long game went from slightly below average to 1.5 strokes better than the field per round, he had seven top 10 finishes in a single season. He has since maintained his long game form and won eight tournaments, including two this year.

To put the importance of the long game in perspective, Broadie cites Tiger Woods at the height of powers. In his prime, Tiger picked up more strokes per round on shots where he was between 150- to  250 yards from the hole (1.01 strokes) than he did from every single one of his putts (.70 strokes). Broadie's research shows that approach shots and tee shots from the 150-to-200 yard range are the most important swings in pro golf—that's where you have the most opportunity to pull away from your competitors. (Shots from 200 to 250 yards are ranked second, followed by shots from 100 to 150 yards. Practice those irons, friends.)

It's no secret that Rory's approach shots were dialed in at the U.S. Open. Unfortunately, the stats on Northern Ireland's McIlroy are not as complete as they for American professionals, as he plays on both the PGA Tour and the European Tour. Also, the PGA Tour's ShotLink system, which records shots with laser precision and forms the basis of the new types of analysis, is not used in the four majors. Yet, the numbers Broadie does have suggest that Rory's long game is where it should be. In 40 measured rounds in 2010, he was ranked second in the long game (gaining 1.19 strokes per round), 160th in the short game (losing .19 strokes per round), and 128th in putting (losing .09 strokes per round). In McIlroy's 14 measured rounds in 2011, he's ranked 37th in the long game (gaining .83 strokes per round), 107th in the short game (gaining .04 strokes per round), and 136th in putting (losing .09 strokes per round).

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So Rory actually has some room to improve. He excels off the tee and with his irons, the departments where he can get the most leverage on the other guys. Looking more closely, it's his driving that's strongest (ranked second in 2010 and fifth in 2011), followed by his approach shots from 100 to 150 yards and 150 to 200 yards. But he's losing strokes to the best short-game players and the better putters. If he raises those aspects of his game, he'll see more consistent top 10 finishes. Remember that these numbers are averages and Rory is young and improving. When he has a week where every facet of his game is dialed in, he dominates. But the evidence of the eyes has not deceived writers like John Garrity and Damon Hack. Rory isn't yet displaying a Tiger-esque dominance—a new level of golf.

The British Open, of course, will destroy these statistical sand castles. There is already talk of shortening some of the holes because of high winds in the forecast. Hitting low shots into the wind removes the advantage of power hitters who can get nice, high trajectories on their approach shots. And it does wonders for your rankings when a putt gets blown sideways. Players will also have to deal with the aforementioned freaky fairway bounces and "trampoline" greens. This is golf at its most elemental, organic, and fickle. To survive Royal St. George's, Rory McIlroy will need healthy doses of those two key Irish exports: good luck and Guinness stout.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.