Rory McIlroy. Richard Heathcote
It always annoys me when we analyse the rounds of professional golfers and talk about the intangible things. Heart, attitude, grit, mindset.
Rory’s problem is that he didn’t want it enough.
I just can’t quite make sense of it. The micro stuff, I can make sense of that. Looking at specific tactics, techniques, strategies. Things guys could’ve done differently. I can make sense of that, though unfortunately, I tend to think about it too much. And following Rory McIlroy’s tough one-shot loss at the 2023 US Open, I keep turning one moment around in my mind, over and over again: McIlroy’s lay-up second shot on Los Angeles Country Club’s 14th hole on Sunday. The pivotal moment in a sequence of events that lead to his only bogey of the day.
I have a sneaking suspicion that McIlroy was overly conservative on this occasion, and may have made a tactical error. I’ll break down why. But first, for all you McIlroy fans and maybe even Rory himself who may be reading this, thanks for reading this! Also, I hope you appreciate this as the earnest piece of constructive criticism it is intended to be.
With that out of the way, let’s dive into the tactics.
The 14th hole at LACC is a 612-yard par 5. As he stood on the tee, McIlroy was a 10 under, trailing Wyndham Clark by one shot. Like he did all week, McIlroy absolutely roasted a driver down the left side, 187 mph ball speed on this occasion. His draw got a little heavy, though, and his ball ended in the left rough, 289 yards away from the hole.
I was actually standing in the rough near McIlroy’s ball as he approached it. I even have photographic evidence. Here I am, frowning.
I got a decent look at the lie and it didn’t strike me as one that was particularly bad or good. Firmly in the medium category.
When McIlroy got to his ball, he took a quick look at his lie then was involved in politely asking the protruding crowd flanking the left side of the hole to move back. “I’ll be going right over your heads,” he said.
The rules officials corralled them back, and it turned into the kind of momentary kerfuffle that happens occasionally in these big groups during majors.
With a lot of external stuff going on, McIlroy and his caddie, Harry Diamond, stepped off the numbers and after a very brief chat, Rory pulled what looked like a high-lofted wedge and nudged it just shy of 170 yards down the hill, into the fairway.
“Smart play Rory,” someone from the crowd shouted.
This is the shot that bothers me though, and the one I can’t stop thinking about. Why didn’t McIlroy try to chase is ball down there a little farther? What was the upside to this conservative route, rather than a more aggressive one, on the final par 5 on the course?
It could’ve been that he wanted a full shot into this green (we’ll get to that), but either way, it struck me as a well-intentioned effort to get back into position, without really exploring if now was the best time to do it.
The fairway itself actually gets slightly wider the farther down it you get, which means there’s not a huge amount of risk in pushing your ball down there farther.
The bunkers themselves aren’t a particularly bad place to be, and if you wanted to play to the green, players had a bail out (and dare I say, back-stopping) option: the 15th tee box flanks the green on the left. Players were bailing out there all week.
The pin itself was tucked more forward on Sunday, too, which means missing left wouldn’t leave you particularly short-sided.
The statistics, seemingly, would support the idea that McIlroy would have been better off to push his ball as far down towards the hole as possible and leave himself with a pitch rather than a full wedge.
On Sunday, 27 players hit their second shots into one of the two zones below. They made 19 pars, five birdies and three bogeys.
Assuming McIlroy took the central route and ended with in the fairway with a shot between 50 and 75 yards, his average proximity from that range would’ve left him an 18-footer for birdie.
Had he found one of the two bunkers, he would have landed himself in a position that he gets himself up-and-down about 50 per cent of the time.
Of all these scenarios, a short left miss would’ve likely left him the most difficult shot, and even that doesn’t seem terrible. McIlroy’s proximity from the rough inside 100 yards this season is a little less than 30 feet. Bryson DeChambeau hit his ball into a spot like this on Sunday. From 50 yards in the rough, he made birdie.
It’s rare that simply being closer to the hole isn’t better than being further away, especially on go-for-the-green opportunities. Frustratingly, McIlroy was a success story of this very approach just the day before. During Saturday’s third round, McIlroy drove his ball into the left rough on this hole. He had a decent-ish lie then, too, so he decided to chop a fairway wood down there, hit a saucy little chip and made birdie.
On Sunday, McIlroy left himself 125 yards for his third. An iffy shot — one of the few McIlroy said after his round he wish he had back:
“As I was walking up to it, it felt like it was a perfect full sand wedge. Hit it hard, get some spin on it. Then while we were getting prepared for the shot, the wind started to freshen a little bit. Full sand wedge wasn’t getting there, so I said to Harry, three-quarter gap wedge would be perfect. I feel like I didn’t time the shot perfectly. I hit it when the wind was at its strongest and the ball just got hit a lot by the wind, and obviously it came up short. If I had it back, I think I had the right club and the right shot. I might have just had to wait an extra 15 or 20 seconds to let that little gust settle.”
Some combination of so-so execution and an unlucky gust left him short and in the lip of a bunker. Things happen in golf, and the further away you are from the hole when it does, the bigger the effects of those unlucky breaks, or slight misses.
McIlroy was actually quite fortunate to get a free drop out of this situation, but it wasn’t enough to save par. Bogey it was, and when Clark made birdie on that hole shortly after, McIlroy was three back with four holes to play. Clark made it interesting with bogeys on two of the final four holes, but another near-miss major it would be for McIlroy.
As the saying goes, hindsight is 20-20. Maybe bogey was just destined to be on that hole no matter what. Maybe it really was a bout of freak bad luck which overshadowed the right play Rory did take. Maybe he would’ve made a worse number if he did go for it.
McIlroy was on the wrong side of professional golf’s thin margins on Sunday regardless. Though the way he’s playing, it won’t be long before he’s on the right side of it.
“When I do finally win this next major, “ he finished his press conference, “it’s going to be really, really sweet.”