NORTON, Mass. – With apologies to Phil Kenyon, who is by all accounts one of the game’s best putting gurus, it was the sheer force of will that lifted Rory McIlroy to victory on Monday at the wind-battered Deutsche Bank Championship.
There’s no doubt Kenyon, who also works with the likes of Open champions Henrik Stenson and Louis Oosthuizen, is a keen teacher; but after just two weeks of working with McIlroy, it’s fair to say even the Englishman recognizes the depth of Monday’s accomplishments.
An overhaul that McIlroy himself figured would take the better part of eight months to fully take may have pointed the Northern Irishman in the right direction, but it turns out the learning curve wasn’t nearly that steep.
McIlroy said all week his putting was a process, but rounds of 71-67-66-65 felt more like a proclamation.
“It's definitely not the finished article, but it's a big step in the right direction,” said McIlroy, who began the day six strokes off the lead. “I’m excited with how my game is and what I've found this week, and hopefully I can keep it going for the next couple of tournaments, but ultimately into the Ryder Cup and trying to get a fourth one of those.”
In retrospect, the ongoing narrative this year had been a tad aggressive when it came to McIlroy, fueled more by unrealistic expectations than practical experience. But statistically he may have soft-pedaled his change of putting fortunes at TPC Boston.
Since the PGA Championship, where McIlroy missed the cut, he’d missed 23 putts from inside 10 feet, and had a pedestrian 53 percent average from 4 to 8 feet in seven rounds. In his last three rounds, there were just four putts missed from inside 10 feet and his average from 4-8 feet jumped to 60 percent.
For the first time in his career, McIlroy led the field in both driving distance (312 yard average) and putting average (1.60), and made his Monday move with birdies at Nos. 2 (4 feet), 4 (2 feet), 7 (4 feet), 8 (18 feet) and 9 (10 feet), where he tied third-round front-runner Paul Casey for the lead at 15 under par.
McIlroy pulled away with a birdie from 22 feet at the 12th hole and secured his 12th victory on the PGA Tour, and his second at TPC Boston, with his 25th birdie of the week at the last hole.
In many ways, McIlroy’s turnaround after what he admits has been a difficult few weeks – he’d missed two cuts and had a single top-10 finish on Tour since June – is as much a testament to his overall skill as it is that new putting stroke.
Too often when players of McIlroy’s caliber talk about how “close” they are to playing their best golf there’s a collection of rolled eyes and dismissive sighs, but when the margins are so thin at the game’s highest levels there’s something to be said for educated optimism.
“It's a fine line, very fine line between missing the cut and winning the tournament,” said Jason Day, who tied for 15th after a closing 67. “A few putts go your way, you get a little bit of confidence, start rolling them in, start feeling good about yourself. Over the last few days he's obviously playing pretty good.”
Given the conditions at TPC Boston, where winds gusted to 25 mph as Post-Tropical Cyclone Hermine skirted the New England coast, McIlroy’s 6-under card to complete his Labor Day was better than pretty good. “Brilliant,” said runner-up Casey who began the day with a three-stroke lead but struggled to a final-round 73.
Only the game’s best players can relate to McIlroy’s almost seamless competitive turnaround, if not the scrutiny he’s endured over the last 16 months since he last won on Tour.
“He's remarkable because he's a bit Teflon-coated,” said Adam Scott, who knows a thing or two about dealing with short-game scrutiny. “He gets criticized a lot, everything analyzed, and he's very patient I think with it all. To me it looks like he hasn't got so frustrated this year, he's just kept doing his thing.”
Kenyon’s magical touch aside, McIlroy came by his improved putting revival honestly.
After Saturday’s round, he traded text messages with Kenyon and could be found every afternoon applying those lessons on the practice putting green – tirelessly working to find a fix he could call his own.
“He's been on the practice green every time I've been there and before and after [a round],” said Jordan Spieth, who tied for 21st at the third playoff stop. “I feel like I work hard on my putting and he's worked as hard as anybody in the past two weeks on his putting.”
A slight grip change on Saturday morning, he rolled his right hand over atop the grip, further fueled McIlroy’s revival, and when he teed off early Monday morning he was no longer lost in technical thoughts, like he admitted was the case last week at The Barclays.
Throughout his most recent swoon in the United States – he did win the Irish Open earlier this season, which for McIlroy is akin to a “fifth major” – the 27-year-old never doubted his ball-striking, only his putting, which prompted him to team with Kenyon last week at Bethpage.
It was telling that it wasn’t McIlroy’s improved putting that inspired him as much as it was his own resilience after playing his first three holes of the tournament in 4 over par on Friday.
“I thought it's a great opportunity being 4 over through three holes to do something that I had never done before, to be in that position and go on and win a golf tournament,” said McIlroy, who moved to third in the world rankings and fourth in the FedEx Cup race with his victory. “To be sitting up here and have won the tournament, I'm very proud of myself for that.”
It was the kind of finish that earlier in his career McIlroy would have probably not had the mental toughness to pull off. For a player who has at many times in his career made winning look easy, this one was hard.
This one was special.