Northern Trust: Rory McIlroy decides laying up the way to go on par 5s

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Northern Trust: Rory McIlroy decides laying up the way to go on par 5s
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JERSEY CITY, N.J. — If Rory McIlroy was playing craps in Atlantic City, he would be on a hot streak this week. Unfortunately, he’s playing golf a few hours north at Liberty National, where frequent 6s aren’t such a pleasing sight.

In Saturday’s third round at the Northern Trust, McIlroy signed for a 66 and a total of 6-under par that left him six strokes behind the overnight leader Jon Rahm. There was also a 6 he carded at the par-5 eighth hole to go along with one at the par-5 sixth on Thursday. Sandwiched between them was a triple-bogey 6 at the par-3 11th on Friday. It’s a brave mathematician who would remind McIlroy that 6 is the smallest perfect number.

“Just a few too many mistakes,” McIlroy said of his performance during this first of three FedEx Cup playoff events. “That was really the difference. I’ve putted well the last couple days and I made enough birdies. I think I’ve made 16 birdies for the week.”

McIlroy ranks among the best in the field in Strokes Gained Putting through three rounds, but his full swing isn’t proving quite as reliable, though he has logged positive gained strokes off the tee in every round, none better than on Saturday. “I don’t feel like I drove the ball that badly,” he said. “I hit a couple destructive approach shots yesterday which cost me a little bit.”

More than a little bit, actually. The world No. 15 spotted the field almost five shots with his irons on Friday, a day on which he hit only eight greens and was forced to rely on his scrambling (eight of 10) to card a 70 that helped him make the cut on the number. His reward was one of the earliest starting times on the weekend, with the prospect of a 48-hour wait to get back out as Tropical Storm Henri pushed Sunday’s final round to Monday.

McIlroy attributed his insurmountable distance from the leaders to two things: slow starts and poor par 5s. In his first two rounds, the four-time major winner was over par on his opening nine holes before clawing his way back. On Saturday he turned in 2 under and would have been even better if not for that 6 on the eighth.

“Got off to a better start today obviously and still didn’t play par 5s well. I played the par 5s at even par for the week,” he said. “Play those a bit better and the score all of a sudden goes from, whatever I’m at, 6 under, to double digits, at least, and you’re in the golf tournament.” (His par-3 scoring for the week is +4, almost all due to that ugly triple on Friday.)

The man McIlroy was looking up at on the leaderboard when he finished, Rahm, played the par 5s at 5 under through two days. Cam Smith, who charged into the lead later in the day, is 7 under on those holes, while even the player at the bottom of the leaderboard, Brian Harman, has outperformed McIlroy in par-5 scoring. Through nine trips around the long holes, McIlroy’s ledger shows two birdies, two bogeys, five pars.

And it could have been even worse. At the sixth hole during the third round, McIlroy found the water with his approach from 206 yards but saved par. “Actually I’m going to lay up on par 5s,” he said after his round. “I think I do better when I lay up on par 5s. Every time I try and go for one, I make at best, a par.”

The Northern Trust - Round Two
The Northern Trust - Round Two

Rory McIlroy prepares to play his tee shot on the 16th hole during the second round of the Northern Trust, the first event of the FedExCup Playoffs, at Liberty National Golf Club on August 20, 2021 in Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

That’s something of an exaggeration. This season, McIlroy has birdied 52.8% of his par 5s, seventh best on the PGA Tour. However, his par-5 scoring average ranks T-38th, suggesting a smattering of bogeys too.

“I did this in 2014 a lot. I put it in position on the fairway and I’d be thinking 3, and I’d make 5 or 6,” he said. “I feel like I’m sort of doing that again. So it’s almost like just don’t be too greedy, play for your 4.”

Laying up on the longest holes seems a curious consideration for a player who ranks second in driving distance on Tour. The only player longer than McIlroy—Bryson DeChambeau—is famously aggressive. No one goes for the green more, yet he and McIlroy have almost identical success rates, making birdie or better around 60% of the time. DeChambeau is 125-under par in 176 attempts, McIlroy 94-under for 154 tries.

Sloppy bogeys and not the plentiful birdies seems to be what McIlroy is focused on, and that’s an issue statistics suggest might be better addressed with short-game work than a new strategy for long holes: He doesn’t rank inside the top 100 in scrambling from any distance inside 30 yards.

“The thing is, as well, with how some of the green complexes are on par 5s, especially, because it’s a par-5 green, you miss it on the wrong side and it’s just really tough,” McIlroy added, as he prepared to head back to his Manhattan hotel to wait out the storm.

He will have one more day at Liberty National to test his laying up theory, and almost two full days to muse on it before he does.

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