BROOKLINE, Mass. “It was his first putt of the tournament, and his ball had no chance of going into the hole.
Rory McIlroy’s first two shots on the 500-yard 10th hole had left the 2011 US Open champion safely in the middle of the green, but a poor putt now put him in danger. Rolling down the hill, Rory’s ball took more of a break than he thought. Now he was riding too low and with too little speed. But as he did, Rory kept his track. Calm and focused, his eyes locked on the ball as it moved away.
“It’s something we’ve talked about a lot,” says Brad Faxon, who in his career has won eight PGA Tour events and appeared at 18 US Opens. “On long putts, watch the ball roll very closely until it comes to a complete stop. You’ll notice how much it breaks at the end.
Moments later, Rory had something more pleasing to watch: his ball rolling in the center of the cup just over a yard.
Rory McIlroy captures the conversation whenever he plays well. He lifted the trophy in Canada last week, and he’s the heavy favorite to do it again in Boston this week. If he does, there will be a lot of talk about his soaring workouts, his razor-sharp iron shots, and his sword-and-sword golf swing. But maybe we should pay more attention to his putting.
For a player who spent the three years between 2015 and 2018 ranked between 159th and 97th in SG: Putting, he arrives this week at Brookline ranked 31st in the category. In many ways, this has been the driving force behind his recent ambitions. In his first-round three-under 67 at this week’s US Open, his flatstick helped him earn 4.25 shots from the rest of the court, making it the statistically strongest part of his game during of his first round.
Back to basics
It all started with a phone call to Faxon, one of the best putters of his generation or any generation, in 2018. Struggling on the greens, he spent an entire Monday afternoon at the Bears Club in Jupiter with Faxon, and had his best week of putting. of his season later this week. Since then, Faxon has been Rory’s right-hand man.
“When I met him, I thought, ‘let’s take it back to basics,'” Faxon says. “My goal was to make him free and confident in his shot. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
It’s a common theme whenever the pair talk about how they turned Rory’s performance on the green. They don’t completely renounce technical work; Rory says he will use a mirror about once a week to make sure his eyes are level and don’t tilt to the right, as they tend to, and he strives to keep his right elbow into his side when setting up (when not, he tends to clip his putts). Everything is very light, by design.
“I think there’s an overabundance of training aids, in the sense that players will tend to rely on them too much,” Faxon says. “Whereas in reality 90% of what you do with the putt happens before you hit the putt.”
Make practice fun
Playing green, viewing, speed control, pre-shot routines; those had priority. Improving these does not mean exercises, but something closer to games. One of their go-tos is to practice hitting the same putt at different speeds: soft and hard, so that it enters the hole at different areas.
“It opens up a person’s creativity,” Faxon says of the exercise. “It helps your visualization and makes putting smarter.”
Whatever he does, Rory appreciates it.
“It’s become almost less convenient,” adds McIlroy. “He just kind of simplified it and put a lot more feel into it, the way I play the rest of the game.”
Rory and Faxon talk a lot too. About the process. About keeping things whole. About accepting that not every putt will go in – and how it goes. Rory didn’t have to worry so much on Thursday. After that short par-saver on the first, the world No. 3 spent the rest of his first round making a number of impressive putts: a long birdshot on the 7th and 8th holes, as well as a par-saver par 12 feet after bunker problems. the 5.
“Putts like that are huge for momentum,” Rory said after his round. “Walking to those greens, I was accepting that I was just trying to give myself a 10 or 15 foot putt, knowing I had a chance to make them.”
It’s the kind of artistic and conceptual stuff that Rory uses to paint a picture on the tee. It helped him find his rhythm on the greens.
Faxon loves seeing him. Not as his coach, but rather as his peer. There was perhaps no better golfer than Faxon to wield his putter like a paintbrush. And he appreciates good art when he sees it.
“It was beautiful to see. He just looked so comfortable on the ball, so instinctive and responsive,” he says of Rory. “People see that confidence in Rory on his full shots. I want them to feel the same about Rory’s putting as they do about his driving.
Time will tell, but if Thursday at Brookline was any indication, it could be his work with Rory that proves Faxon’s masterpiece.