Rory McIlroy, expectations and the talent influx

If you follow golf in any way, it seems like it’s impossible to not have some kind of take on Rory McIlroy. With his otherworldly talent and stature in the game, it makes sense that he would draw a lot of attention and over the last couple of weeks, he has definitely given people plenty to talk about. From his recurring rib injury and subsequent return at Erin Hills, to his equipment changes and his Twitter dunking on Steve Elkington, Rory has kept all of the #content writers busy and that’s to say nothing of his performance on the golf course over the past few months.

Let’s talk about that performance on the course for a minute. That otherworldly talent that I mentioned above leads to an enormous amount of expectation, and when you look at the results, Rory has been putting up the kinds of quality finishes that you would expect. Since the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs last year, Rory has teed it up in fourteen events worldwide and his results are in the table below.

Tournament Finish
The Barclays T31
Deutsche Bank Championship Win
BMW Championship T42
Tour Championship Win
WGC-HSBC Champions T4
DP World Championship T9
BMW South African Open 2
WGC-Mexico Championship T7
Arnold Palmer Invitational T4
WGC-Dell Match Play T30
Masters T7
Players Championship T35
U.S. Open Cut
Travelers Championship T17

In those fourteen starts, Rory has posted two wins and six other top-10 finishes, along with a tremendous Ryder Cup performance where his 3-2 record doesn’t accurately describe how well he actually played. In this admittedly small sample size, what we’re seeing are results that are right in line or better than his career marks of a win in every eleven starts, and top-10 finishes in roughly half of his events. For good measure, a large portion of this has happened while Rory was going through another equipment change and battling that rib injury.

So, why am I talking about this? Like I said above, it’s hard to not have some kind of take on Rory, and the combination of this article and all of the news surrounding him had me thinking about where he’s at, and that was magnified yesterday. After he shot a final round 64 at the Travelers to jump 43 spots on the leaderboard, I sent this tweet, referencing the stance from Elkington after Rory missed the cut at the U.S. Open.

Immediately after tweeting that out, I started to get some responses from people that referenced the fact that it was only the Travelers, that he did this while not under any pressure, and that he has a tendency to backdoor good finishes after starting poorly. Maybe I’m reacting too strongly to the responses from a few people on Twitter, but it seems like there’s an overwhelming opinion out there that Rory, despite the results mentioned above and that they’re right in line with career finishes, is struggling or in some kind of slump. The question is why, and I think the answer has to do with three things: Tiger Woods, major championships and the talent influx.

I’ve written a lot about this in the past, but the success of Tiger, especially when he first got out on the PGA Tour, has really made it difficult for us to rationally talk about what success looks like for the rest of the golf world. Rory’s not the only one that’s affected by this, either. Look at the way that people talk about Jordan Spieth. It’s pretty easy to find articles or talking head segments asking the “what’s wrong” question, and yet, with his win at the Travelers yesterday, Spieth joined Tiger as the only players since World War II to win ten tournaments on the PGA Tour before turning 24. That’s the entire list. Tiger was so good and made things look so easy that it’s really unfair to ask this generation of players to live up to that standard, and yet, I think there’s an expectation from some that players like Rory should be replicating that success, or at least getting closer to it.

The second thing is how much everyone, from players to fans to media, focuses on major championships. The last major that Rory won was the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla, and he’s gone 0-9 since with three missed cuts, five top-10 finishes and a solo 17th in his return from an ankle injury at the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. There are four of these tournaments per year, with very strong fields (more on that in a second), so you shouldn’t be surprised when any player, even one of Rory’s calibre, doesn’t win one for a little bit. Even with this “lull”, he’s still on a pretty good pace:

When you look at the larger picture, what you see is that since that last major win, Rory has teed it up in 57 events that awarded Official World Golf Ranking points, and his results are below:

  • Wins: 7
  • Top 10: 27
  • Top 25: 9
  • Other: 7
  • Missed cuts: 7

Once again, in line with or better than his career percentages.

One of the best things I’ve read over the last few years was written by Jake Nichols on why Rickie Fowler doesn’t win more tournaments, and the same logic applies to Rory. He plays in the biggest tournaments every year against the best fields, so he’s going to have more competition for the title than he would if he teed it up in “lesser” tournaments. Even still, the results above show that he’s performing at a pretty high level.

The last thing to touch on here is the influx of talent, both new and old. That 2014 PGA Championship really wasn’t that long ago, and yet, so much has changed at the very top of the game. In the OWGR released the day after the 2014 PGA, Rory was ranked number one and had a pretty healthy lead on Adam Scott, and the drop-off after the top five of Rory, Scott, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose was pretty steep. While players like Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Hideki Matsuyama were ranked inside the top-25, none of them had taken off the way they have recently, and in place of players like Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker and Thomas Bjorn, we now have the likes of Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas.

Even from just a few years ago, the competition for Rory in any tournament has gotten stronger, and the huge advantage he used to have with his length isn’t as pronounced against the best players in the world. We often talk about how deep the fields are these days as a reminder that anyone can win, but we don’t often talk about how it reduces the opportunity for someone like Rory to stack victories. Even if you are of the opinion, as I am, that Rory is the most talented guy out there, the gap has narrowed significantly and it’s not just one or two guys nipping at his heels. Ultimately, I think this is good for golf, but we have to adjust our expectations and move the goalposts a touch for how we define success. Admittedly, I don’t have any numbers to back this up and I don’t know what the real answer is, but it feels like the idea of twenty PGA Tour wins and two or three majors from two or three decades ago should be akin to ten PGA Tour wins and one or two majors in 2017 and beyond.

All of this is not to say that Rory is above criticism. He’s clearly struggling on the greens, and I’m sure that there’s an argument to be made that all of the equipment tinkering is having a negative impact on his results. Those are things that are well within play here, but along with these takes are levels of nuance and context that need to be applied as well.

Just something to keep in mind when discussing the “struggles” of a player who has been ranked outside the top-10 in the world for a total of fourteen weeks since 2010.

8 Comments on “Rory McIlroy, expectations and the talent influx”

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