Rory must play numbers game to win Masters
Published 07/04/2015 | 02:30
World No 1 Rory McIlroy is a warm 11/2 favourite to win The Masters and complete his Career Grand Slam this week.
For sure, his game appears tailor-made for Augusta National and he led for 63 holes here five years ago as a 21-year-old 'kid'.
Since then, McIlroy's grown into the best golfer on the planet and has four Major titles to his name. He looks a natural fit for a Green Jacket.
Until you crunch McIlroy's numbers at The Masters. Only then do you get a picture of the true odds against the Holywood star on this beguiling but savage beauty of a golf course that breaks many a brave young heart.
The figures reveal how much McIlroy needs to curb his natural sense of adventure and limit his risks if he's to achieve the ultimate reward next Sunday at Augusta.
In his book 'Moneyball, the Art of Winning an Unfair Game,' Michael Lewis told the true story of the Oakland Athletics and how, under General Manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt in the movie), they used 'rigorous statistical analysis' to find the cut-price players that brought a low-budget club to the baseball playoffs in 2002 and 2003.
Today we apply 'rigorous statistical analysis' of McIlroy's performance, hole-by-hole, over 22 rounds in six tournaments since his Masters debut in 2009, then compare his efforts to those of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott and reigning champ Bubba Watson, who have won here a total of 10 times.
We did not apply the career statistics of Woods, Mickelson, Scott and Watson but their performance only in those events in which McIlroy also played. Why? Because the complexion of The Masters tournament is different each year so that's the only way to be sure of comparing like with like.
For example, the icy, blustery 2007 Masters set up perfectly for Zach Johnson, not the longest hitter on Tour. Few if any could make the par fives in two, serving as an equaliser for the American who laid up on all 16 as usual that week, made 11 birdies and won in style. Similarly, nimble Canadian Mike Weir won the Masters in a mudbath in 2003.
Four-time champion Woods has the lowest career-average score at Augusta, playing his 74 rounds in 19 events in 70.86, making him the only player in history to break 71.
Remarkably, given his most recent win was in 2005 and myriad problems in recent years, Tiger's average score in his 20 rounds here since '99 is a remarkable 70.55, almost two shots per round lower than McIlroy's 72.50 average.
With trademark honesty, McIlroy admits he must temper his aggression on Augusta's par fives. How appropriate that after playing all four in even-par last year, against eight-under by winner Watson, he'd finish eight shots behind Bubba on Sunday.
The cumulative figures over six years are staggering. The Ulsterman is an aggregate 21-under for the par fives since 2009, lending a 16-shot advantage on those holes to Scott (-37), 20 to Tiger (-41), 22 to Watson (-43) and 27 to Mickelson (-48).
Little wonder McIlroy reckons his prospects of winning at Augusta hinge on him being "more efficient on the par fives."
Resist the overwhelming temptation to go for eagle when standing in mid-fairway with an iron in hand and, instead, "maybe play more of a percentage game, play for your four and get out of there. It's still a shot gained, rather than trying to be a little too greedy."
Yet McIlroy cedes ground on other holes also.
While everyone recalls how his meltdown in 2011 'began' with that triple-bogey seven from between those wood cabins at 10, many will be stunned to learn McIlroy's never made birdie in 22 visits to that hole, an astonishing stat for a player so gifted.
And he's never had a birdie at Augusta's first either.
McIlroy's difficulties actually began at that capricious 445-yards opening hole that ill-fated Sunday in 2011.
Already set a little off-balance by the prospect of taking a four-shot lead into the final round of a Major for the first time, he was further unsettled when he made bogey at one.
Rashly, the youngster went for the back-left sucker pin and ended up in purgatory, horribly short-sided in a deep Augusta swale and chipping against the grain.
Mind you, Mickelson hasn't made birdie at one since 2009.
In fairness, McIlroy's figures are best at the hefty par-three fourth and on Greg Norman's nemesis in 1996, the ninth, while nobody's fared better than him at the daunting fifth and 17th.
And only Mickelson's splendid sub-par average beats McIlroy at 18. It'd be some confrontation if these two are going head-to-head for the Masters when they reach the final tee next Sunday.
Yet McIlroy lags behind the rest around Amen Corner, averaging an aggregate 12.22 strokes for that infamous stretch, losing over two shots there per tournament to Scott (11.68).
His aggregate against par for all 18 holes leaves McIlroy a distant fifth, his 10-over blitzed by Woods (-29), Scott (-24), Mickelson (-17) and Watson (-7).
Interestingly, the Ulsterman fared one better on the front nine than Bubba (+2) but when it comes to cash earned per shot at Augusta, Watson, winner in two of the past three years, is the real 'Moneyball' king. His $2,196 per shot makes McIlroy's $333 look paltry.
Few have crunched the numbers to better effect than 2014 European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley at Gleneagles, so the Dubliner is best placed to address the relevance of these figures.
"Stats are not the be all and end all. They're a guide," says McGinley. "I didn't live and die by stats, far from it. I'd say they were 25pc, maybe 30pc of my decision-making. The rest of it is gut instinct, feel and knowledge.
"They're not hard and fast. You use them as a sounding board but it's amazing how many times history is replicated, not just in golf but in any sport. I'm a great believer in that. Stats are a real indicator."
McGinley believes patience and discipline will enable McIlroy to take full advantage of his great attributes at Augusta.
The figures not only point him in that direction but also reveal how much ground the 25-year-old has to make up. It's going to be tougher than the bookies suggest.
Yet as the sublimely gifted McIlroy showed during his first 54 holes in 2011, if he gets on a run at Augusta, he can leave the field gasping … only in the intervening four years, he's grown into the deadliest finisher in golf.
The key for McIlroy is to control those aggressive inner urges and take Augusta gently.