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Rory McIlroy cuts short his PGA Tour distance race

Rory McIlroy at 2021 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship
Rory McIlroy finally decides to throttle back on his need for speed in a failed pursuit of Bryson DeChambeau-like distance on the PGA Tour.

Long-suffering McIlroy recognizes that he doesn’t need to beat Bryson DeChambeau off tee to win on scorecard, but will he?

The pursuit of distance corrupts in golf and absolute distance corrupts absolutely. Two of the game’s most prominent headliners have come to know the gospel truth in the adaptation of that axiom. One’s realization comes from great pain, and the other one is born of unexpected wisdom. You would hardly guess which is which.

It’s somehow ironic that Bryson DeChambeau, in his quest for maximum power, has led to the conclusion that less can, indeed, be more. While Rory McIlroy, the last person on earth who should concoct a need for speed, created a dumpster fire for himself needlessly chasing DeChambeau’s FlightScope numbers.

Both are in the field this week at the WGC Match Play at Austin (Texas) Country Club, and the distance between them, as far as the state of their games is concerned, looks as wide as the Grand Canyon. DeChambeau is one of the favorites to win, and McIlroy will be lucky to advance out of the first three days of group play (tee times).

The story is well-known by now that DeChambeau built a massive body – by golf standards – and trained himself to hit drivers as far he is physically able. He got his ball speed well over 200 mph – the PGA Tour average is about 170 – and says he hit a drive that carried 400 yards in a training session.

He took his newfound paradigm shattering power to Winged Foot last September, proclaiming he would hit driver off every tee that wasn’t a par-3, and the 4-inch U.S. Open rough be damned. He didn’t hit many fairways but proved that his method was another way to succeed as he won the Open by six shots.

McIlroy, when he is on song, is perhaps the best driver in the game. He has been among the top four in driving on the PGA Tour for the last five years. He routinely hits it 320 off the tee and has another 20 or more yards in reserve.

Which made it all the more downright bizarre when he conceded at the Players Championship – where he missed the cut with 79-75 – that his struggles with his swing were the result of overzealous speed training, with DeChambeau in mind. Thus far in the 2020-21 season, DeChambeau’s average ball speed is a PGA Tour-leading 191.48; McIlroy’s average is 183.06.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t anything to do with what Bryson did at the U.S. Open,” he said.

McIlroy said his swing got too long and more rotational in an effort to hit it farther. Now, the only time he can hit it in the short grass is on the driving range. As a result, he temporarily has employed Pete Cowen, perhaps the top European swing instructor, to join the king’s horses and king’s men in an effort to put Humpty McIlroy together again.

If McIlroy were a teenager, you’d ask him what the hell was he thinking. Here’s a sample:

“The one thing that people don’t appreciate is how good Bryson is out of the rough,” McIlroy said. “Not only because of how upright he is, but because his short irons are longer than standard, so he can get a little more speed through the rough than other guys.”

Dustin Johnson and Tony Finau dabbled in a little experimentation but didn’t succumb to the temptation in the same way McIlroy did. Johnson has said more than once that he hits it far enough and just wants to find the fairways.

Instead of looking for a few more mph, McIlroy should take a lesson from Johnson, set up his TrackMan and get better with his wedges. Plus, learn how to read putts from 10 feet and in.

 Bryson DeChambeau at 2021 WGC Workday Championship at The Concession
Bryson DeChambeau leads the PGA Tour in driving distance and clubhead speed, and, yes there is a correlation.

Meanwhile, golf’s bulked-up bomber showed the rest of the world that he can think about other things besides lift, drag, resistance and swinging 6 degrees up with his driver. In fact, he has demonstrated some uncommon maturity at age 27. In the offseason, he recalibrated his training and lost about 15 pounds from his reported high of about 240.

He still can carry it 350 yards on command, and did so at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, driving it across the lake at the dogleg-left par-5 sixth hole, about 80 yards right of the green. However, he also has realized that it’s not necessary to hit all bombs all the time. He won at Bay Hill with more brains that brawn, and he carried that attitude to the Players Championship the next week.

He didn’t hit driver everywhere at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. In fact, he hit 4-iron off the 18th tee every day – even when Tour officials mandated an in-course out-of-bounds after DeChambeau mused that he might hit driver off the 18th across the lake to the ninth fairway. He didn’t have his best stuff in the final round and still wound up in a tie for third.

When DeChambeau began his chemistry and physics experiment, his intent was to find the limits and test them. Having proved his point, he has moved on to significantly improve his short game, which now accompanies his putting skill. Believe it or not, DeChambeau is one of the game’s most complete players.

Maybe McIlroy needs to learn something from DeChambeau – words you never thought anyone would say.

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