CARMEL, Ind. – Rory McIlroy’s victory Monday at the Deutsche Bank Championship was the latest reminder of how quickly fortunes can change – and why PGA Tour players are usually just one swing tip, putting tweak or positive thought from surging into contention.
That’s the only way to explain how McIlroy went from being nearly dead last in putting two weeks ago to pacing the field in Boston.
Or how Vaughn Taylor went 10 ½ years without a win, and was 11 days removed from a visit to a Colombia hospital, when he broke through in February at Pebble Beach.
Or how James Hahn overcame eight consecutive missed cuts to win at Quail Hollow.
Or how Billy Hurley III went nine months without a top-40 finish before rolling at Congressional.
Or how Jimmy Walker went 11 straight tournaments without a top-10 before a wire-to-wire victory at the PGA.
“It always feels like you’re just trying to dial it in,” Taylor said Tuesday at the BMW Championship. “Sometimes it’s a little thing, and other times it feels like you’re miles away from playing good. It’s a funny game, so you just keep working and hope for that moment where it all comes together.”
McIlroy’s victory wasn’t all that unexpected – after all, he’s the third-ranked player in the world with off-the-charts ball-striking statistics – but it still registered as a mild surprise, if only because of his recent putting woes. In his previous seven rounds, he’d missed 23 putts inside 10 feet and lost more than 10 shots to the field on the greens. He turned to putting coach Phil Kenyon for help and began a process that he hoped would be completed in time for next year’s Masters.
Suffice to say, the early returns have been encouraging. In his last three rounds, he missed only four times inside 10 feet and gained nearly 5 ½ shots on the greens. The turnaround was as simple, he said, as holding the putter grip more in his fingers, with his right hand on top of the handle. He implemented the slight change on the practice green the morning of his second round, and it allowed him to release the putter, instead of blocking his putts. Three days later, he won for the first time on Tour in 15 months.
“It’s just incredible,” he said, “this game, how quickly things can change and how quickly things can turn around.”
There are similar comeback stories from the Tour’s middle class.
Playing on past champion’s status from his pair of opposite-field victories a decade ago, Taylor had two missed cuts and a withdrawal (the aforementioned hospital visit) in his last three starts entering Pebble. But on the range, he stumbled upon his swing thought for the week: He tried to feel as though he was laying the club off at the top.
“You hit a shot here or there and you say, ‘Oh, that was it; that’s what I’m looking for,’” Taylor said. “From there, it’s usually a lot of variables coming together at the same time.”
Crucial putts need to be holed. Nerves need to be steadied. And in Taylor’s case, a Hall of Famer needed to falter, as he overcame a six-shot, final-round deficit to Phil Mickelson.
It turns out that swing thought was a short-term fix, not a long-term solution. He missed his next five cuts, and seven of his next nine.
“It lasted long enough,” he said with a smile, “and then you’re on to find something else.
Hurley, whose slump-busting victory came at one of the most demanding courses on Tour (Congressional), said that he runs through about 15 to 20 swing thoughts a year, as he chases what works and dumps whatever does not. He even jots down the various tips in a journal.
“It’s one of the best parts about our game and one of the most maddening parts about our game all at the same time,” he said. “It doesn’t take much just to find that little feeling, that little switch that just makes it all feel right and the ball starts going where you’re looking, putts start dropping and you have a great week.”
When Brian Stuard arrived in New Orleans for the Zurich Classic, he’d gone 35 consecutive starts without a top-10. But he wasn’t distraught. He had worked the past few weeks on moving on to his left side through impact, and he said he saw enough positive signs the previous week (a T-55 in San Antonio) to believe that he was due for a “good finish,” whatever that meant.
Even though Stuard was winless in 100 career appearances on the Web.com and PGA tours, he sensed early on that it might be his week in New Orleans. In the opening round, he should have dropped at least one shot after his approach shot on the 12th hole wound up in a nasty spot left of the green. He tried to limit the damage, chopping out to 30 feet behind the hole, but he holed the comebacker for par. Walking off the green, Stuard said, “I thought, Hey, this might be a good omen.”
Stuard ended up winning the rain-shortened event.
“Golf to me is weird,” he said, “because if you get that one mental key, it seems to be able to last a tournament, but you can’t keep it going for the whole year. It just seems like if you change something, it must be the positive vibes it gives you.”
Hahn followed that out-of-nowhere script when he won in Charlotte. Even though he’d missed eight cuts in a row, he reviewed the stats and didn’t find any glaring weakness.
“It was just a combination of one putt, one drive, one bad hole, one mud ball, one bad break that kind of snowballed into a couple bogeys and missed cuts,” he said earlier this year.
“The competition out here is so high that you can afford to make mistakes, but you can’t afford to make many of them.”
Players like McIlroy have a bit more leeway, because their tee-to-green performance is so dominant, but even for the stars there is a fine line between a victory and another top-10.
Sure, part of that is because of the deep competition. But it also boils down to a few breaks: tee shots that appear destined for the rough but kick back into the fairway, or approaches that spin closer to the hole, thus increasing a player’s make percentage.
The lesson here: At this level, players are never as far away as they can seem.
“You’re always evolving,” Taylor said. “You just always have to see the end goal and the end vision and try to stay patient.”