Rory McIlroy was one of the first players on the course on Tuesday this week at TPC Sawgrass. The sun had barely appeared over the horizon when I caught Rory, playing alone, as he teed off on the fifth hole of his first practice round of the 2024 Players Championship. I watched him hit four tee shots in all.

On the 471-yard par 4, the World No. 2 hit his driver so far it flew through the fairway, into the rough. A pitch and a couple of putts later, and he was onto the next.

On the sixth, a tight par-4 with trees and bunkers flanking both sides, McIlroy faded a 3-wood that flew straight down the middle of the fairway. He turned to his caddie, Harry Diamond, and jokingly made a dissatisfied, fart noise. Impact was the tiniest millimetre off the heel—not something mere mortals would notice.

Another driver on the seventh, a steamed fade down the fairway.

Then came the beefy par-3 eighth. McIlroy pulled a long iron and hit a high, right flare out to the right. He dropped another ball and sent that one a little left, then walked toward the green burying himself in some golf swing videos on his phone.

It highlights the small, but relatable problem that the 2019 Players champion is working through in his golf swing ahead of this week’s event. He’s hitting his driver great, thanks to a swing thought that he says he “loves.” The problem? It doesn’t work with his irons.

This was evident last Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where McIlroy gained strokes on the field with 12 of his drives, but lost strokes to the field on 13 of his 18 approach shots.


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So what’s going on?

Rory’s ‘amazing’ driver swing feel

On Wednesday, ahead of his first round, McIlroy explained the thought that’s been working so well for him off the tee.

“I have this amazing feeling with my woods,” McIlroy says. “I love this feeling of firing my right arm down the target line.”

Specifically, McIlroy says, he feels like his club drops behind him in transition, and then feels like he releases and extends his right arm down the target line through the ball.

Mike Ehrmann

It’s a draw feeling, and one the rest of us can adopt. McIlroy says it works with his driver because it allows up to swing more in-to-out and release the clubhead for high launch, low spin power drives.

But with his irons, things change.

“When I try to recreate that feeling with the irons, the club just sorts of drops behind me. It starts left and goes further left,” he says. “I think it’s because you turn harder with a wood, you’re sort of clearing [your body] harder.”

What golfers should learn

What Rory means is that with a driver, he counteracts the inside-out release feeling with his arms with an aggressive upper body rotation so he avoids getting stuck.

But with his irons, he can’t turn aggressively enough with his body to make the same formula work. His hands end up taking over and closing the clubface too much, which is why ends up missing so many irons left, which he did on five different approach shots during the final round at Bay Hill.

“It’s almost like two different swings,” he says. “I have a swing thought for my woods and I need a different swing thought for my irons.”

The lesson here for the rest of us is that your favourite swing thought may not be one that works cleanly through the bag. One size fits all are a rarity. Your driver and iron swings require different things, technically. Sometimes, that means different swing thoughts, too.

Main image: Mike Ehrman