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Paul McGinley: What Rory McIlroy must do to win frequently again

Paul McGinley gives his verdict on Rory McIlroy’s latest near-miss at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and pays tribute to Tyrrell Hatton after moving inside the world’s top five with another impressive Rolex Series win.

Paul McGinley

Rory McIlroy is a proven winner – there’s no doubt about that – and it’s important to recognise just how good of a player he is before discussing why he doesn’t win more regularly for the quality of player he is.

His win ratio when holding the 54-hole lead is around 50 per cent, a really great ratio as the average on tour of players going on to win when taking a lead into the final day is closer to 30 per cent.

Also, his win ratio per tournaments played on the PGA Tour is up there with the best of any current player, bar Woods, in the modern era at almost 10 per cent. As we all know, McIlroy is so talented and he’s regarded by many within the game – myself included – as the world’s most talented player.

It is now six years since he has won a major and 15 months since his last win, with opportunities slipping by or sabotaged with either a poor round early in an event or a run of holes during a round that have put him too far behind. He then so often makes a run for the line and a top-10 finish, like he did at Augusta in November.

His game has clearly been good enough to win on many occasions, but he hasn’t been effective in getting the job done as often as the really great serial winners seem to be. The fact that he is held to account against those players shows the esteem as a golfer that he is held.

Sir Nick Faldo last year talked about Rory not having a plan B when his game isn’t quite there and I agree there is some merit to that point of view. There is a skill in controlling your game and constructing a round when leading, through game plan and a controlling of emotions in the heat of battle.

While Rory may be very talented in playing the game, this skill is not his strength. It’s a learned skill that needs attention and has more to do with focus, strategy and playing the odds than merely what many would call heart, something that McIlroy clearly doesn’t lack as his record suggests.

Let’s look at what the very best said on this. Nicklaus talked a lot about not beating yourself, while Tiger Woods talked of the best way to defend a lead is by not making mistakes and extending your lead. Both insights show that their mindset was not of blowing the field away with stellar golf, or plan A as Faldo called it, but merely influencing others play.

By minimising your own mistakes, taking advantage of scoring holes and forcing other competitors to play outside their comfort zone, it makes the field play overly aggressive and get dispirited in playing against a such a stoic competitor. Competitive intimidation was such a hallmark in the success of Nicklaus and Woods.

I think that pressure situations are more of a challenge for him at the moment in that he feels a lot of expectation, both internally and externally, but doesn’t seem to have a strategy to counteract what sits side by side with anyone so talented. That, to me, is the root of the issue, as I don’t see any part of his game that is particularly weak.

I know you can say he hit some poor wedges and poor putts during the final round in Abu Dhabi, but that’s pressure-related in forcing the issue as he had lost the competitive initiative. Earlier in the week, when he was posting the low rounds, the wedges were brilliant and the putting was brilliant, when the pressure was not at its most intense.

It was interesting to hear the post-round comments of both players on Sunday, where McIlroy was despondent and justifying his poor play by saying he hadn’t played great all week, while Hatton was of the ‘can’t believe this is really happening, it’s surreal ‘ type. One player was burdened with closing the deal while not on his A-game, while the other had a free roll of the dice unburdened and enjoying the thrill of battle and the moments they brought.

Hatton’s success

I look at the whole package, from the mental side to the physical side to the distance he hits the ball, and I really struggle to find a weakness in any department of Hatton’s game. He played brilliantly to win in Abu Dhabi and his statistics illustrated that.

Hatton was number one in both strokes gained tee-to-green and in strokes gained approach, so you’ve only got to putt half-decently on top of that to win a tournament. His putting was obviously much better than that and there’s no doubt he’s the real deal, which we’ve been saying for a while now.

That’s four wins in 15 months and they have all been big titles, it’s not like he’s winning smaller events. He had his breakthrough win in America and has won three Rolex Series events during that time, so all those victories have come playing in strong fields and against the world’s best players.

He is up inside the world’s top five now, above Rory McIlroy and with only Jon Rahm ahead of him from a European point of view, and you’d have to say he’s got a great chance to go even higher. There will be hurdles ahead no doubt as he becomes more high profile and the associated expectations both internally and externally that will naturally follow. We have already seen a glimpse of this in him missing the three cuts at the majors in 2020 with major wins being the obvious next hurdle.

Every golfer faces such challenges in getting to the next level no matter where they are in their career. We see so often that when they do, a flurry of success happens in a relatively short period of time. Just look how quickly Jordan Spieth, Padraig Harrington, and Rory McIlroy racked up major wins over a short space of time. When McIlroy and Hatton overcome their present challenges, don’t be surprised to see the dam open with a flurry of more wins to follow.

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