Sports Nut

Is Rory McIlroy the Next Tiger Woods?

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

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Can Rory McIlroy win the British Open?

If you wanted to pick a tournament that makes a mockery of golf statistics, you couldn’t do better than the British Open. There’s the famous wind, the odd bunkers, the shorter holes that neutralize the advantage of the long hitters. This week, the championship is being played at Royal St. George’s. The last time it was held there, in 2003, the winner was Ben Curtis, a tour rookie who was a 300-to-1 shot.

This particular course is notorious for its unpredictable fairways, where a straight drive will hit a bump and carom off into the rough. Hello, double bogey. The “anonymous pro” who contributes to Golf Magazine’s PGA Tour Confidential was merciless: “Can I tell it like it is? Royal St. George’s is one of the worst major championship venues ever. It’s definitely the worst stop in the Open rota.”

The anonymous pro, like most pros, scorns unpredictability. A good swing should be rewarded with a landing area that sets up the next shot, not a quirky sideways bounce. A firmly stroked putt should follow a true line, and so on. (For a great example of how unpredictability will sabotage a pro’s game, read this Washington Post story about Steve Marino playing a poorly maintained public course in Washington, D.C.) In a similar way, the golf fan doesn’t much like unpredictability in golf champions. The 22-year-old Rory McIlroy arrives at the British having won the U.S. Open in record fashion and having drawn Tiger-like attention from the sporting press. The hope is that he will become a dominant golfer, an appealing boldface name who will always be in contention on Sunday afternoon.

Although Rory is young and on the make and Tiger is old and injured—The Chosen One will miss his second straight major—the golf cognoscenti have not yet anointed McIlroy as the heir to Woods. Here’s John Garrity from Sports Illustrated: “I don’t think anybody’s going to say Rory is playing a game with which I’m not familiar, the way people did with Jack and Tiger. Tiger hit shots out of rough and over trees that other players physically couldn’t.” His colleague Damon Hack echoed this line: “Rory is going to win a lot of majors, but to put him in the same sentence with Nicklaus and Tiger, I don’t know. I see too many guys out there who can hit the shots he hits.”

Ah, there it is—the old evidence of the eyes. But what do the stats tell us? Is there anything in the numbers to suggest that Rory McIlroy will be an all-time great?

Let’s turn to what one day will be recognized as the foundational paper of modern golf statistics, Mark Broadie’s “Assessing Golfer Performance on the PGA Tour.” Broadie looks at pro golfers from 2003 to 2010 and breaks their games into three categories: long game (shots more than 100 yards from the hole), short game (shots less than 100 yards from the hole, excluding putts) and putting (shots on the green, not including the fringe). According to Broadie, the long game accounts for 72 percent of the strokes by which a pro beats the field. The short game contributes 11 percent, while putting counts for 17 percent. The long game isn’t quite everything, but it is the cornerstone of success in professional golf.

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).

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.