Hawk's Nest: Big numbers killing McIlroy in 2013


JERSEY CITY, N.J. – A lot of people think PGA Tour pros are spoiled rotten. It’s a fair perception, given the amount of money they play for, the endless perks that come with being a terrific golfer and the adoring-public factor that never lets up. The game’s best are held in high esteem, so when they complain about lousy greens or an impractical course setup, golf fans tend to respond with their own voice of displeasure.

Would the baby like a pacifier?

How much is this week’s purse again?

Isn’t it the same for everyone?

Every once in a while, however, player griping leads to growth. The substandard becomes superb, doggones become bygones, and in the case of the 2013 FedEx Cup playoff opener, a venue previously defined by its various faults emerges as the greatest thing since roll-on deodorant.

In my 18 years covering the PGA Tour full-time, no course has overhauled its reputation as quickly and dramatically as Liberty National did last week. Not even close. For all the spectacular beauty shots of the Manhattan skyline and America’s most precious statue, this tournament’s success would be determined on the ground, the site’s future dependent largely on the feedback of those with their names on the bags.

“We should be playing here every year,” said Charles Howell III, a sentiment echoed by several of his Tour brethren.

“A lot of subtle changes that add up to a big difference,” said John Senden. “I don’t remember a whole lot about how it was in 2009, but this was clearly a lot better.”

True, four years had passed since the last visit to Jersey City, about four decades earlier than some might have hoped. Liberty National owner Paul Fireman was stung by the negative reviews. “He took the criticism personally, and he’s in a position financially to do something about it,” according to one club employee.

Fifteen holes were altered in some form. Many of the putting surfaces were expanded and recontoured, which is a nice way of saying they dug up the elephants, but the problem in ’09 had more to do with all the humps in the original Tom Kite/Bob Cupp design.

Phil Mickelson has perfected the art of signing autographs, delivering the money quote and talking to drooling fans, all at the same time. “Imagine Augusta National with 24-yard-wide fairways and [heavy] rough,” he assessed. “The setup was fine once they turned the rough into a first cut. That brought out the strength of the golf course, which was the greens. You could play shots into them.”

All I know is, we saw a really interesting golf tournament. Three of the year’s four major champions were at or near the top of the Sunday leaderboard, all burning the place up while third-round leaders (Matt Kuchar, Kevin Chappell) struggled mightily. Quality rewarded, poor play penalized amid a wide range of scoring – that’s what a big event should feature on the weekend.

RORY McILROY’S SEASON is an interesting study, a much-publicized bust for which many causes have been cited. A veteran golf writer can usually find numbers to make any valid point, but in the curious case of the Irish Lad Gone Bad, I thought I’d let the numbers talk to me.

It all starts with the blowup holes – McIlroy’s inability to go any significant stretch without a double bogey or worse. At the game’s highest level, 6s kill rounds. Over the course of an entire tournament, you can recover from those mistakes if you don’t make them again. As this data suggests, that hasn’t been the case for Rors in 2013.

• Starts: 14
• Holes played: 873
• Doubles: 20
• Triples: 3
• Quadruples: 1
• Average number of holes between disasters: 36.4

You don’t have to look very hard to find a relevant comparison. Tiger Woods has played in almost the same number of events and in many of the same tournaments as McIlroy. His data:

• Starts: 13
• Holes played: 882
• Doubles: 11
• Triples: 4
• Holes between disasters: 58.8

One of Tiger’s triples came on the shot off the flagstick in the second round at the Masters, which turned into an 8 after the two-stroke penalty. Five of his disasters occurred during that dreadful performance at the Memorial, all in a 36-hole span. There’s never a good time to play like a chop, but if you’re gonna stink, you might as well do it on a single weekend.

McIlroy, meanwhile, has made a double or worse in 11 of his 14 starts. He managed four laps around Quail Hollow without a disaster, then did the same a week later at The Players – imagine that. In every tournament since, his week has been derailed by poor judgment or risks that shouldn’t have been taken.

That’s not Nike’s fault.

The Barclays was a perfect example. McIlroy made three doubles in the first round, and then rallied with a 65 to make the cut. All three happened on par 4s. Turn those 6s into 5s, and McIlruin reaches Saturday at 9 under – squarely in the hunt.

One point made here a while back bears repeating: the kid remains one of the longest drivers in the game and is actually hitting more fairways than he did a year ago, when he was using Titleist equipment. He’s hitting a slightly higher percentage of GIR and has cut his putting deficit by about 60 percent.

The difference? In 1,072 competitive holes on the PGA Tour last year, McIlroy made 15 doubles and not a single triple. He went 71.5 holes between disasters. If that doesn’t tell you something, nothing will.

GREAT PLAYERS DO great things in every sport. Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Johnny Unitas’s 47 straight games with a touchdown pass, a record that stood for more than a half-century before Drew Brees broke it last fall. Which of Wilt Chamberlain’s scoring records is more unfathomable, the 100 points in a single game or the 50.4 scoring average for an entire season?

Last Saturday’s telecast included mention of Woods’ consecutive-cut streak, which I would rank second on his list of greatest career accomplishments (behind four straight major titles). To go more than seven years without having a bad week at the game’s highest level is utterly mind-boggling – the longer you think about it, the more astonishing it becomes.

 That said, Woods did not make 142 consecutive cuts, the number commonly acknowledged to define the length of the stretch. He did play in 142 consecutive events without missing a cut, but 31 of those tournaments didn’t have a cut. I’m no genius, but you can’t make a cut if there isn’t one to miss.

 At 111, Woods still breaks the record held by Byron Nelson, whose recognized number (113) also included no-cut events. On the list of things that keep me awake at night, this one doesn’t make the cut, but I do find it annoying that such a phenomenal accomplishment is misrepresented from a numerical standpoint.

 Not that anyone cares, but the PGA Tour media guide does identify Woods’ streak correctly as consecutive events without a missed cut. Here’s the list:

• Woods: 142 (Feb. 1998 to May 2005)

• Nelson: 113 (Jan. 1941 to May 1948)

• Jack Nicklaus: 105 (Nov. 1970 to September 1976)

• Hale Irwin: 88 (Jan. 1975 to Feb. 1979)

• Dow Finsterwald: 72 (Sept. 1955 to Feb. 1958)

• Tom Kite: 53 (July 1980 to June 1982)

 You might also notice that Tiger averaged about 20 events per season during the streak – about four more than Nelson and two or three more than Nicklaus. I wonder if people used to complain about Byron and Jack not playing enough.

NOT FOR NOTHING, I asked two players, two caddies and a swing coach who U.S. Presidents Cup skipper Fred Couples should add to the team with his captain’s picks. All five said rookie Jordan Spieth should be on the team. Four named him first, and the fifth didn’t need a ton of prodding.

“Never seen the kid play, but I’d still pick him,” said one of the sources. Couples will announce his selections next Tuesday, and if I had to throw a dollar on it, I’d bet on Spieth making the squad. Nobody occupying the spots immediately behind the automatic qualifiers has done enough recently to warrant inclusion, and besides, you can’t find two Americans who have played better than Spieth this summer.

If this were the Ryder Cup, where the pressure is far more intense, Couples would have a reason to lean on experience, but as Hunter Mahan told me at the PGA Championship, “for 27 weeks each year, it’s just you and your wife and your caddie. You get to the Presidents Cup and you’ve got 12 guys and 12 caddies, and everybody’s pulling for you. The golf becomes so simple at that point.”