Bryson DeChambeau was as surprised as most golf observers when Rory McIlroy revealed he had tinkered with his technique to keep up with the big-hitting US Open Champion.
“I knew there would be people there to be influenced, I didn’t think it would be Rory,” said DeChambeau.
Well, quite. By his own admission, the search for additional distance has thrown McIlroy’s swing out of sequence and left him fighting a two-way miss, manifested in a four-over opening round of 76 at the Masters on Thursday. Expectations were low for McIlroy, given he is trying to compete just a few weeks after officially partnering with coach Pete Cowen and all the new swing thoughts and mental baggage that entails. Cowen’s counsel is highly-regarded and the relationship should prove a fruitful one. McIlroy certainly looks in need of guidance, because someone in his corner should have questioned the wisdom of searching for even more clubhead speed.
In the last five seasons, McIlroy’s PGA Tour ranking for driving distance has been: fourth, second, first, first and ninth. If anyone should suffer from a case of distance envy, it is not McIlroy. The competitive advantage on offer for gaining an extra few yards is surely minuscule. McIlroy’s swing is the most envied in golf. There is a poise and flourish to his long game that is worth the price of admission alone. When the putter is working and McIlroy’s mind is in the right place, he is incredibly difficult to beat and every player on Tour knows it. The quality of his ball-striking has, until the last few months, been taken as read.
“I added some speed and I am hitting the ball longer, but what that did to my swing as a whole probably wasn’t a good thing, so I’m sort of fighting to get back out of that,” McIlroy said in March. By jeopardising his biggest asset, the first half of McIlroy’s season could become a write off.
There were familiar errors on display at Augusta. There were four destructive drives on the second, third, seventh and 11th, three of them to the right and one to the left. The pull came on the par-four seventh, when his attempted recovery ran out of room down the right and hit his father Gerry in the leg. On the par-three sixth and 12th, McIlroy missed the green long and left with short irons, the arms racing clear of the body. With a longer iron, he fanned his second to the par-five 13th out to the right and found Rae’s Creek. Missing right with the long clubs and left with the short ones: it is a ruinous combination and rather unusual for an elite player, it tends to be the other way around. There were also some close-range misses on the greens: a three-putt from nowhere on the ninth and one for birdie on the par-four 14th.
The glassy greens and running fairways at Augusta left little margin for error and, to offer some perspective, only 12 of the 88-man field shot under par on Thursday. McIlroy found 10 greens in regulation, a shade below the field average, likewise with his nine of 14 fairways found. Not disastrous by any means but it is in these departments that you expect McIlroy to make gains on the field.
Slow starts in majors have also become a worrying theme, the most infamous of which came on home soil in the 2019 Open Championship at Royal Portrush when McIlroy began with a quadruple bogey eight. According to golf data analyst Justin Ray, since 2015 in majors, McIlroy is a combined 32-over in round one. He’s 64-under in rounds two, three and four. His current problems appear largely technical, but such a pattern over the course of six years hints at a mental barrier that needs clearing. Once McIlroy has fallen out of contention, it seems the shackles come off and he plays some of his best golf.
McIlroy has always been mercurial, relying on the feel in his hands and a spring in the step. Unlike Dustin Johnson or DeChambeau, he is a right-hand dominant player; think of it like a tennis player who prefers to play with topspin. That means he relies more on timing and sequencing to keep the clubface square, rather than taking the club back closed and holding it off through impact as Johnson does. On too many shots, he is out of sync. Either McIlroy’s body outraces the club and he pushes the ball right, or he hangs back on his right side and the hands take over flipping the shot left.
It is by no means terminal. McIlroy is far too good for that and he could not have made a better appointment than Cowen. When he does return to form though, it will come by remembering his natural strengths rather than entering into a misguided arms race with his American rivals.