The key to success for Rory McIlroy in 2022? It's all in the details

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Earlier in his career, on his way to his first event of the new year, Rory McIlroy would jot down his annual goals on the back of his boarding pass.

They’d be about what you’d expect.

Win five times.

Add a major to his haul.

Claim the FedExCup and Race to Dubai.

He still covets those achievements, of course, but these days McIlroy’s goals are more specific, more objective, more process-oriented and less about an overall result that oftentimes is out of his control.

Full-field tee times from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

And so as he prepares to make his 2022 debut at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, McIlroy on Wednesday revealed what he’d like to tick off this year. It was a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of the eighth-ranked player in the world.

“There’s a few,” he started, and so he led off with this goal: He wants to hit 60% of his fairways this year.

“If I can hit the ball in the fairway 60% of the time with how far I hit it, I’m going to create a lot of opportunities for myself,” he said, “and the more opportunities you give yourself, some weeks the putts will fall, some weeks they won’t, but I think over the last few years I’ve certainly become a more consistent putter and I certainly will hole what I feel is my fair share.”

Given his results the last few years, the 60% threshold doesn’t seem random.

Only twice in the last few years has he hit that mark: In 2016 (61%), when he captured his first FedExCup title; and in ’19 (62%), when he won a second FedExCup and was named the PGA Tour Player of the Year.

What does a successful 2022 look like for McIlroy?

For McIlroy, the 2021 calendar year was marked by two wins but also by bouts of inconsistency and tinkering. At The Players, he admitted that he’d been caught chasing speed in the wake of Bryson DeChambeau’s eye-opening victory at the 2020 U.S. Open – a surprising revelation considering McIlroy didn’t lack pop, annually ranking among the top 5 on Tour in driving distance. During the middle portion of the year, he also went through a coaching change, adding renowned instructor Pete Cowen to his team. For a few months he even shied away from his patented high draw off the tee in favor of a cut. By the fall, however, McIlroy had returned to his childhood coach, Michael Bannon, and also his favored shot shape.

As he begins a new year, McIlroy said he’s no longer chasing distance. In fact, he said, he may start to dial back off the tee.

“That goal of hitting more fairways, it even maybe means throttling back and hitting 3-wood a little more often or hitting clubs that are maybe not as aggressive off tees and just putting yourself in the fairway,” he said. “Maybe being a little bit more of a measured and controlled golfer.”

It’s a challenge, adding more accuracy while not defusing what has long been his greatest weapon. But McIlroy arrived at this course of action, he said, while reflecting on Tiger Woods’ legendary success.

“I’ll certainly pick and choose my spots where I can take advantage of the driver and hit it,” he said, “but the best player of the last 30 years, Tiger, he picked and chose where he hit driver, and he played a very, very controlled game. It didn’t work out too badly for him.

“Not saying that my game compares to his in any way, but there are certainly aspects of what he did so well in the past that I would obviously love to put into my game.”

The sport has changed in myriad ways since Woods’ prime, but McIlroy is right: During Woods’ best years (2000, 2006, 2007, 2009), he hit roughly 60% of his fairways that season, sometimes more.

OK, next: McIlroy wants to improve his iron play. More specifically: He wants to gain at least a half-shot on the field with his approaches.

“I’ve done that before,” he said, “and I feel like I can do that again.”

Indeed, McIlroy is typically around that half-shot mark each season – he gained .403 shots per round last season – but only once in his career has he exceeded a full shot. That was, perhaps not surprisingly, in 2012, the year he won his second major and a career-best five times overall. It’s also the only year in which he ranked among the top 10 on Tour in that statistic.

It’s an area of heightened importance given the current landscape. Last season Collin Morikawa led the Tour in that department with 1.17 shots gained per round on the field. He earned his second major title in as many years and vaulted to No. 2 in the world.

McIlroy also highlighted two more statistics of interest – proximity inside 150 yards and putting – but didn’t specify the numeric goals he was trying to hit. Last season he was middle of the pack (65th and 66th on Tour, respectively) in those areas.

Most elite players keep their game-improvement goals to themselves, perhaps to avoid being held accountable. Not McIlroy, who used his season-opening news conference to share what he’s focused on in the coming year. Take care of those process goals, and he might be able to achieve the desired outcome: breaking the major-less drought that has now reached seven years and counting.

“I think having goals that are more objective and more that I’m in control of – I can’t control if I win five or six times a year, because there’s so many other variables in there,” he said. “But I can certainly control if I hit 60% of the fairways. I can control my strokes-gained numbers, that my stats are better than they were the year before. So it’s about trying to set yourself goals that you can control, that are objective and measurable. And I guess those are the sort of goals I’ve started to set myself the last few years.”