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How Rory McIlroy won at the Wells Fargo

Let’s get one thing straight at the outset: Rory McIlroy hasn’t been as far gone as it might have seemed, and therefore his victory Sunday at the Wells...

Let’s get one thing straight at the outset: Rory McIlroy hasn’t been as far gone as it might have seemed, and therefore his victory Sunday at the Wells-Fargo isn’t as much of a surprise as it might seem.

True, McIlroy hadn’t won an official PGA Tour event in 25 starts, and hadn’t made a serious run at a Major since the 2018 U.S. Open. True, too, that Rory had missed three cuts this calendar year – including the Masters — and stood 44th on the FedEx Cup points list. Coming off his 51st place finish last season, he was trending toward mediocrity.

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But if it was easy to overlook McIlroy entering the Wells-Fargo, it would also have been a mistake. Granted, Rory played poorly at Augusta. But he did enter Charlotte with four top 10 finishes this season, two of them in Majors. He tied for eighth at the September U.S. Open at Winged Foot and for fifth at the November Masters.

And to the extent McIlroy has been experiencing a recent ‘drought,’ it’s the kind of drought 98 percent of players would love to go through.

His victory Sunday was his sixth since 2018, and he’s only had one winless season since 2013. That was also the last time McIlroy won less than $2 million playing tournament golf in the United States.

Mcilroy’s true problem in 2021 has been inconsistency. His performance in his last five non-Major starts – the Genesis, the WGC Workday, the Palmer, the Players and the Wells Fargo – demonstrates that up-and-down trend.

And as it so often does on Tour, the McIlroy story all comes down to one repetitive and boring word: putting.

Here are Mcilroy’s per-round Strokes Gained Putting numbers in those five events. By the way, those five encompass a win, a t6, a t10 and two missed cuts. One look at the data and it won’t take much effort to distinguish the top 10s from the missed cuts.

Event                    SG Putting

Genesis                  -1.721

WGC Workday        2.619

Arnold Palmer        1.800

Players                   -1.301

Wells-Fargo            3.690

Even in his best seasons, McIlroy has never been an exceptional putter. In arguably his best season, 2019 – he won the FedEx Cup – McIlroy averaged a relatively modest 0.425 Strokes Gained Putting per round. By comparison, he helped his score nearly three times as much by his play off the tee, and was about 50 percent more productive approaching the greens.

In his other statistically dominant seasons, 2012, 2014 and 2016  — three Majors plus a first, second and third in the FedEx Cup – his Strokes Gained Putting averaged a barely measurable 0.042. He averaged about 1.2 Strokes Gained Off The Tee in those same seasons.

McIlroy won the Wells Fargo Sunday by following the tried and true recipe that winners follow seemingly on a week-in, week-out basis: Hit greens and make putts. He was third in the field in putting and 10th in approaching the green. That is often a dominant combination on Tour.

The only two guys in the field who putted more productively than Mcilroy at the Wells Fargo were Hunter Mahan and Bryson DeChambeau. But while McIlroy was 10th in his approach game, DeChambeau and Mahan ranked 74th and 77th in that category respectively.

As a result, DeChambeau came home merely tied for ninth, six strokes behind McIlroy. Mahan? Because he couldn’t make any other aspect of his game work, the week’s best putter tied for 54th, 14 strokes off McIlroy’s pace.

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