When discussing the biggest victims of the Tiger Woods era, the names that often get tossed around are Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and David Duval. Rarely do we discuss Rory McIlroy.
That’s because McIlroy is a different kind of victim. Rarely has Woods prohibited McIlroy from winning golf tournaments like he did with the others, but nobody’s perception has been more affected in the wake of Woods’ historic prime than that of McIlroy.
What we have to date with McIlroy is one of the all-time golf careers from ages 20-30 with a lot of runway still out there. It hasn’t always felt like that, though, for the best player of the last decade, largely because of what Tiger did to stretch our expectations.
We’ll discuss that (and more) below, but first, let’s look at a snapshot of McIlroy’s career.
PGA Tour events: 174 | Wins: 18 (10.3%)
Best wins: 2011 U.S. Open, 2012 PGA Championship, 2014 Open, 2014 PGA Championship
Top 10s: 87 (50%) | Top 25s: 117 (67%)
The numbers are nasty. Winning north of 10% of the time on the PGA Tour is just ridiculous; it does not happen. To provide some perspective here, Mickelson and Jordan Spieth — two of the best of the last few generations — won 6.3% of their first 174 PGA Tour events. Dustin Johnson (20 wins) won 5.2% of his first 174 events. Tiger, of course, won 23% (!!) of his first 174.
If you’re sitting over 10% for an extended period of time, you’re historically good. Mickelson, who is probably a consensus top-15 golfer of all time, was only over 10% after his first PGA Tour win. Since then, he’s been in the 6%-9% range, which is still incredible. If you want to extend it beyond PGA Tour events for McIlroy, the numbers are just as impressive. Even though he’s played a PGA Tour-heavy schedule for most of his career, McIlroy still has eight career European Tour wins (not including WGCs and majors, which count for both tours). He’s also a three-time Race to Dubai (or order of merit) winner.
Perhaps even more impressively, McIlroy has not dropped out of the top 15 in the world since he entered it at the end of 2009. His worst fall was to No. 13 after missing the cut at the 2018 Valspar Championship. He won in his next outing at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
We could go on and on here. Pick your nugget of choice from Justin Ray’s recent post on the Ulsterman. This one was probably my favorite.
Rory won the 2019 WGC-HSBC Champions, his 18th career PGA Tour title, at age 30. In doing so, he became the fourth player in the last 75 years to win 18 PGA Tour events, including four majors, at age 30 or younger. The others are Woods, Nicklaus, and Tom Watson.
Sometimes, when we talk about Rory, we place him alongside guys like Rickie Fowler and Patrick Reed or compare young European stars like Jon Rahm to him.
This is part of the Tiger effect. Those golfers feel closer to McIlroy’s level because he doesn’t appear to be close to that of Woods. The reality, though, is that Rory’s resume is far meatier than any of his contemporaries.
McIlroy has been getting better, too. Last season was his best strokes-gained number ever on the PGA Tour, and at 2.55, it was the best non-Tiger number ever, too. Second place last season was Patrick Cantlay at 1.86, which means that the difference between first and second was greater than the difference between second and 13th on that list. His number in this truncated season was almost identical. McIlroy is second this year at 2.54 strokes gained per round. This would be the second-best number of his career behind only last season.
It’s scary to think that somebody who has won over 10% of PGA Tour events he’s entered is potentially getting better, but that’s what these numbers suggest.
Of course, we also have to talk about the Bryson DeChambeau-sized elephant in the room as well, which is his six-year major championship drought.
There’s no way to make it look better. We can talk about top 10s and top fives and playing in the final group and strokes gained at Augusta, but all that actually matters (both to him and us) is, Did you win?
We discussed this at the very end of 2019 on the No Laying Up podcast, but McIlroy noted that the only golfer he would have traded seasons with in 2019 was, somewhat coincidentally, Woods. Despite the fact that McIlroy had a far superior overall season, Woods did the one thing McIlroy needs to do: He won the Masters.
When you break down major championship performances for a living, you start to think about them in white, yellow and green for how they’re coded on Wikipedia. There’s been a lot of yellow for McIlroy in recent years, but there’s only one color that actually matters (and that works a couple of ways).
McIlroy’s winning mark at majors is 9%, which tracks almost exactly with his overall winning percentage on the PGA Tour. The rub is that he won all of those majors in such a condensed period of time that it feels like it’s lower than it actually has been (especially of late). Maybe it won’t play out like this — because these majors have become so monumentally important to his legacy, maybe paralyzingly so — but it’s not inconceivable that he could win three or four over the next 10 years and stay on track with his career percentage.
The more interesting part when it comes to McIlroy and the majors is that he’s taken advantage of nearly every opportunity he’s had (ignore the 2011 Masters). His four wins (only 19 golfers have more, by the way) have come in about six legitimate chances. When he’s there, he closes.
Seven major wins is the magic number, by the way. That’s the list you want to be on. If he can get to seven (which is a lot!), that’s the list that includes Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer. A who’s who.
Regarding McIlroy’s legacy, it’s commendable how he’s begun to disseminate the power he’s accumulated over the years. Winning begets a big voice, and when used properly, it can push the game forward into the future better than it was before. Sometimes, when somebody like Brooks Koepka does this — because his power accumulation has been more acute — it feels more like he’s popping off. With McIlroy, it always feels genuine, thoughtful and measured. When we wrap all of this up 20 or 25 years from now, that will matter maybe even more than it feels like it matters right now.
As an aside, I am not an impartial, unbiased participant in this discussion. McIlroy is difficult to dislike in a world where most often it’s the opposite. He’s gracious with his answers, generous with his time and a ball-striker seemingly constructed on a planet that has no relation to this one. I try to lay these things aside when I attempt to objectively dissect his accomplishments, and I think I generally do a decent job of that because it’s relatively straightforward. The winning percentage is great. The strokes-gained numbers are all-time. The 0 for 19 at majors since 2015 is bad. You get the picture because it’s an easy picture to get.
So the problem here is not with the past but rather the future. I find myself wanting Rory to win because he’s easy to write about and because there’s so much to write about. Also because he’s easy to root for (which can actually be said of a lot of the younger top players in golf). He’s humanizing, too, which sets him apart from so many of the best to ever play in any sport.
At the 2034 Ryder Cup, as McIlroy’s career begins to taper off and we’re taking stock of the 35 wins and six or seven major championships, I’ll remember some of what happened at those. The bow at Hazeltine, the shot into the 18th at PGA National to win the Honda Classic, the two eagles to close the third round at the 2014 Open, the necked 3-wood in the final round at the 2014 PGA Championship, the $10 million putt at the 2016 Tour Championship and on and on we could go.
But what I’ll probably always remember most is the two-day dance at Royal Portrush in 2019 when he went 79-65 on Thursday and Friday and broke down emotionally while breaking down his round afterward. I wrote about home and what it means to be from somewhere unique, a subject that could be discussed endlessly. But it was especially meaningful that somebody who will eventually be one of the 15 or 20 best in his respective field couldn’t put a sentence together because he realized that the context of what was happening to him was more important than what he was actually doing.
Self-awareness is a hell of a trait for any person to possess, much less a generational talent. There is no other superstar in sports who has more tools in the toolbelt as a culturally-relevant icon. McIlroy’s work on the course stands on its own — and with another major or two, he’s probably the greatest European to ever play the game — but his position off of it does, too. He’s the rare athlete who thrives in myriad environments and whose awareness of what to do with power actually meets the outsized power he’s earned.
It will be fascinating to see how that plays out as McIlroy ages into his 30s and rips off another 40 or so runs at major championships. That — as always! — will be his ultimate barometer. With more majors comes more voice and more power. He’s proven so far that he knows what to do with it and how to handle it. I don’t expect much to change over the next decade.