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Major-championship season tees off this weekend in Augusta, Georgia, so settle in for some high-definition azaleas, a sweet-sounding Jim Nantz overture and a musky aura of self-importance.

The 2019 Masters is not short on juicy questions. In pursuit of his first major victory in more than 11 years, is Tiger Woods about to have a green jacket for every day of the work week? Can Dustin Johnson add the Masters to his list of vanquished tournaments after posting three consecutive top-10 finishes at Augusta?1 Could this year’s winning putt possibly elicit a more tepid reaction from the gallery than Patrick Reed’s did in 2018?

But there is one debate that can be shuttered before it attracts oxygen: The hottest player on the planet is Rory McIlroy, the pint-sized Irishman with bionic power off the tee. No one on any tour is playing better golf than McIlroy.2 In eight starts this season, McIlroy has a tour-leading seven top-10 finishes, including a win at the Players Championship. Bettors are aware, installing 8-1 odds, the shortest of any player, for the 15-time PGA Tour event champion.

A win at Augusta National would make McIlroy just the fourth player in golf’s modern era to complete a career grand slam before turning 30, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.3 And there’s reason to believe this week represents the best opportunity the 29-year-old has had to capture the green jacket that has eluded him.

By true strokes gained, which adjusts regular strokes gained for field strength,4 McIlroy is playing the best golf of his career this season, picking up an average of 2.83 strokes on the field — nearly one full stroke better than his 2018 performance and even more exceptional than his 2014 campaign (+2.56), when he won three tournaments, including two majors.

Rory is outdoing himself this year

True strokes gained per round in different areas for Rory McIlroy, 2009-19

True strokes Gained Per Round
Season Putting Around Green Approach Off The Tee Total
2019 +0.40 +0.42 +0.97 +1.51 +2.83
2018 +0.15 +0.38 +0.51 +0.91 +1.92
2017 -0.10 +0.18 +0.50 +1.10 +1.65
2016 -0.15 +0.26 +0.61 +1.38 +2.24
2015 +0.02 +0.28 +0.70 +1.27 +2.38
2014 +0.36 +0.08 +0.78 +1.52 +2.56
2013 -0.02 +0.06 +0.57 +0.74 +1.04
2012 +0.14 +0.31 +1.19 +1.23 +2.49
2011 -0.12 -0.09 +0.57 +1.05 +1.94
2010 -0.16 +0.01 +0.45 +0.83 +1.41
2009 -0.30 -0.02 +0.37 +0.45 +1.42

Source: Data Golf

“Rory is in a great place right now,” said James Jankowski, a specialist putting coach who is currently working with players on the European Tour.

Behind blistering tee shots and gorgeous iron play, McIlroy had one of the best starts to a career in modern golf history. But for years, it has felt like he is being held back by one club: his putter.

Inexplicably, the same guy who made driving greens on par-4s feel ordinary could also five-putt at Pebble Beach. “If Rory McIlroy could only putt well,” The Telegraph’s James Corrigan wrote last year, “he would win every week.” Indeed, one of the sport’s most gifted ball-strikers finished the past three seasons 97th, 159th, and tied for 135th in strokes gained per round with the putter. What’s perhaps most remarkable this season, then, is that McIlroy ranks 57th in the metric.

He’s sinking 92.9 percent of his putts from 5 feet, which ranks sixth on the tour and is a full 12.2 percentage points higher than last season. He hadn’t ranked higher than 92nd in the metric in the past three seasons. Inside of 10 feet, he’s draining 88.3 percent of his putts, tied for 56th on tour, after finishing 64th last year. He ranked outside of the top 130 in the metric in 2016 and 2017.

“Mentally, he seems to be better (this year),” Jankowski said of the man who once screamed, “Who can’t putt?!” at a fan. “Making more important putts and seeming more relaxed about the outcome.”

And while those numbers could certainly dip as McIlroy tallies more rounds, he has never putted this well relative to the field at this juncture of the season. And in terms of total true strokes gained, he is doing better than any previous winners had from Jan. 1 until the Masters started.

McIlroy is in better form than previous Masters winners

Highest true strokes gained per round from Jan. 1 through the start of the Masters for previous Masters winners and Rory McIlroy, 2007-19

Strokes Gained
Year Player Rounds measured Putting Total Masters Finish
2019 Rory McIlroy 23 +0.41 +3.48 ?
2012 Rory McIlroy 8 +0.27 +3.24 T40
2017 Rory McIlroy 8 +0.02 +3.02 T7
2004 Phil Mickelson 23 +0.37 +2.93 1
2005 Tiger Woods 21 +0.20 +2.87 1
2006 Phil Mickelson 23 +0.55 +2.84 1
2015 Jordan Spieth 27 +0.84 +2.55 1
2013 Adam Scott 12 +0.18 +2.43 1
2015 Rory McIlroy 10 +0.26 +2.29 4
2014 Bubba Watson 16 +0.30 +2.25 1
2017 Sergio Garcia 12 -0.56 +2.23 1
2012 Bubba Watson 23 -0.34 +2.15 1
2016 Rory McIlroy 14 +0.44 +2.12 T10
2014 Rory McIlroy 12 -0.15 +2.10 T8
2009 Rory McIlroy 12 +0.14 +1.93 T20
2018 Rory McIlroy 15 +0.62 +1.81 T5
2010 Phil Mickelson 25 -0.08 +1.52 1
2011 Charl Schwartzel 16 +0.67 +1.49 1
2016 Danny Willett 8 +0.64 +1.46 1
2013 Rory McIlroy 13 +0.52 +1.41 T25
2011 Rory McIlroy 8 -0.87 +1.36 T15
2007 Zach Johnson 20 +0.98 +1.28 1
2018 Patrick Reed 23 +0.18 +1.18 1
2010 Rory McIlroy 10 -0.69 +0.95 CUT
2009 Angel Cabrera 14 -0.34 +0.17 1
2008 Trevor Immelman 20 -0.91 +0.01 1

Source: Data Golf

But that will be tested this weekend. Augusta’s sloping bentgrass greens boast nightmare-inducing undulation. Former and current players have described playing on them as “very intimidating,” “the most difficult” and “Mickey Mouse, miniature golf.” Legendary golfer Ernie Els once six-putted to start the tournament and later intimated that he might soon quit the sport. Last year, two-time Masters champ Bubba Watson sent an eagle putt into a greenside bunker. “It embarrasses you,” Charles Coody, who won the tournament in 1971, told Sports Illustrated. “Sometimes you do stuff where you want to walk off and hide.”

McIlroy would have been forgiven if he had done just that last year. Trailing Reed by three strokes entering the final round, he logged a 2-over-par 74 and was irrelevant by the back nine. Not trusting his putter, McIlroy told reporters, “made a big difference.”5

McIlroy is on record, though, not putting too much stock in putting — particularly at the Masters. “At Augusta, you don’t need to putt great,” McIlroy said last year. “You need to not waste any shots.” He isn’t alone with that hypothesis — and there’s more evidence pointing to that conclusion.6 Mark Broadie, who pioneered the strokes-gained metrics, found that Augusta has the highest three-putt rate of any stop on tour.7 However, Broadie also noted that because the greens are so well manicured, players also sink more putts inside of 10 feet at Augusta than anywhere else. The issue, then, is sticking approach shots within a reasonable distance of the flagstick to limit lag putts and mitigate long-range misreads. McIlroy has been doing just that, picking up 0.97 true strokes gained on approach shots, the second best mark of his career. Additionally, if he maintained his current numbers, McIlroy would set a new career best in three-putt avoidance (1.98 percent of putts). The past 15 champions were picking up 0.18 strokes on the field with the putter entering tournament week. McIlroy is picking up strokes at more than twice that rate.

Away from the green, precision from the tee box is valuable, to be sure, but the Masters layout doesn’t exactly do any favors for McIlroy’s preternatural power. His 263.2 yards per drive at the Masters is well below his tee-shot averages in recent seasons and his historical averages at golf’s other marquee events. Although he bashes par-5s like you’d expect, he struggles on par-4s, where on average he’s plus-3.6, according to Golf Stats.

Rory’s hot start this season has plenty of observers excited, though it’s not at all rare for McIlroy to surge out of the gate. When his past 11 seasons are compared with the pre-Masters performances of the past 15 Masters champions, McIlroy holds the top three marks in true strokes gained entering the tournament. But his 2019 performance has been prodigious.

That McIlroy’s sensational play is setting him up for a potential historic win is made all the more riveting by the baggage he carries into the Georgia pines. In 2011, the then-21-year-old held a four-stroke lead after 54 holes before stumbling to the finish line with a final-round 80, giving him a 15th-place finish. It was the highest closing round by a 54-hole leader in 56 years and is still tied for the fourth-highest round of McIlroy’s professional career. “Rory needs to fly very quickly to Northern Ireland,” broadcaster Nick Faldo said as McIlroy tapped in the final bogey of the day. “And I’m sure that his whole country will give him a big hug.”

But eight years later, is this finally when he puts it all together and earns the time-honored tradition of an uncomfortable post-victory interview in Butler Cabin?

“The Masters has now become the biggest golf tournament in the world, and I’m comfortable saying that,” McIlroy said last year. “I don’t care about the U.S. Open or the Open Championship, it is the biggest tournament in the world. It is the most amount of eyeballs, the most amount of hype. The most amount of everything is at Augusta.”

Footnotes

  1. Johnson didn’t play in the 2017 Masters after falling down a staircase.

  2. He leads the PGA Tour in total strokes gained, strokes gained tee-to-green and strokes gained off the tee, among other valuable metrics.

  3. Joining Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Bobby Jones completed an in-season grand slam in 1930 at age 28, but that was before the first Masters, when the U.S. and British amateur tournaments joined the open events in both countries as the four majors.

  4. True strokes gained appraises the number of strokes better or worse a golfer was in a given round than the average PGA Tour professional in a given season.

  5. Nearly half of McIlroy’s 10 highest total-putt performances at majors have come at Augusta.

  6. Draining shots on the green obviously doesn’t hurt a player’s chances, considering that strokes gained while putting drives 35.8 percent of score variation on tour, more than any other shot category, according to research conducted by Data Golf.

  7. From every distance, pros are 80 percent more likely to need three putts to finish at Augusta, Broadie found.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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