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SAN DIEGO – It’s one of those made-for-sports-talk-radio topics that always overheats this time of year – wins are not a quarterback statistic.
With so many ways to quantify success, deferring to the simplest outcome - victories - ignores so much. It’s a debate that intensified after last week’s NFC title bout between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. It’s also a concept that seems apropos to golf at the moment.
Tony Finau won’t make excuses for why he hasn’t won on the PGA Tour since the 2016 Puerto Rico Open. In fact, when asked after his second-round 67 at the Farmers Insurance Open how a player should be defined, the 31-year-old left no wiggle room.
“At the end of the day, sports is about winning,” said Finau, who is one shot off the lead through two rounds at Torrey Pines. “I'm at that point in my career where it is about winning and every week I tee it up I challenge myself to put myself in contention to do that and I've done that nicely here with 36 holes to go.”
Last week across the state in Palm Springs, Finau took a share of the 54-hole lead into the final round, closed with a 68 and finished fourth. It was the fourth time in his Tour career he’d taken at least a share of the lead into a final round and failed to convert.
He’s become a Ryder Cup hero, has 35 top-10 finishes since his breakthrough in ’16 and has moved into the top 20 in the world ranking, and yet the only question that anyone wants to ask is how he’s going to break through the grass ceiling.
Although he long ago won his second Tour title, Rory McIlroy has been answering similar questions following a torrid start last year that included everything but a victory. He played the first 2 ½ months of last year without finishing outside the top 5 - with no victories. He also added a third-place finish last week in Abu Dhabi on the European Tour after taking a one-stroke lead into the final round.
What’s wrong with Rory?
It might offer the easiest of takes given that he’s more than a year removed from his last Tour title, but if the Northern Irishman was feeling the heat it didn’t show following another dominant driving performance at Torrey Pines.
“It gives me a lot of confidence. Especially with how I drove it parts of last week, it wasn't very good, it was a little guidey at times. First tournament back out, maybe a little unsure of what I'm doing,” said McIlroy, who is four back at Torrey Pines. “I made a decision that I'm just going to fully commit to every swing I make off the tee, and it worked, I hit some great tee shots, took advantage of some of them.”
While success only makes the target on McIlroy and Finau grow, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate relative success or failure from the result. With history as the only guide, wins are not a Tour player statistic.
Tiger Woods, the very best to play the game if wins is the only guide, has a career .222 winning average. Sam Snead came in with a .140 average while the great Jack Nicklaus won at a .125 clip. In the modern era, Phil Mickelson might be a more realistic benchmark having won 44 of his 635 career starts (.069).
The point is, if wins are the only measure of success Mickelson spent the better part of two decades failing. It’s a take Lefty likely wouldn’t agree with.
When a player has done special things in their career, like McIlroy and Finau, anything short of a trophy presentation is a reason to question. But the fact is, that like the quarterback who might be statistically superior in every facet of the game they don’t win them all.
Last week in Palm Springs Finau ran into a buzzsaw in Si Woo Kim, who closed with a bogey-free 64, while for McIlroy it was Tyrrell Hatton’s 66 that was the spoiler.
There’s always room for improvement and neither Finau nor McIlroy is above second guessing
“I always have to look at my play. There's some mistakes I for sure made on Sunday, but there's mistakes I made throughout the week so I can't single out Sunday as being the reason why,” Finau said. “I wasn't able to play and finish a few shots better to win the golf tournament, but I was very encouraged after I left last week on some of the things I've been working on.”
McIlroy and Finau don’t need anyone to remind them it’s past time to close one of these weekends out, but they also don’t have much use to be defined by the simplest of outcomes when there are so many other ways to measure success.