BROOKLINE, Mass.; – He was his first putt of the tournament, and his ball had no chance of getting into the hole.
Rory McIlroy’s first two shots on the 500-yard 10th hole had left the 2011 US Open champ safe in the middle of the green, but one poor putt was now putting it in jeopardy. Rolling across the hill, Rory’s member took more of the break than he thought. Now, it was rolling too low and with too little speed. But as it did, Rory held his follow through. Calm and focused, his eyes locked on the ball as he slipped further away.
“That’s something we’ve discussed about a lot,” says Brad Faxon, who overcame his career playing win eight PGA Tour events, and competed in 18 US Opens. “From the long putts, watching the ball especially rolls until it completely stops. You’ll notice how much it breaks at the end. ”
A few moments later, Rory had something more enjoyable to look at: His ball rolling into the center of the cup from just over three feet.
Rory McIlroy captures the conversation whenever he’s playing well. He lifted the trophy in Canada last week, and he’s been overwhelming this week in Boston. If he does, there’ll be a talk of his booming drives, rifling iron shots, and swashbuckling 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 comes into Brookline this week ranked 31st in the category. In many ways it’s been the engine of his recent ambitions. During his three-under first-round 67 at this week’s US Open, his flatstick helped him gain 4.25 shots on the rest of the field – making him the statistically strongest part of his game during his opening round.
Back to basics
Faxon, one of the best putters of his or any generation, in 2018. Struggling on the greens of his season later that week. Faxon’s been Rory’s go-to putting guy ever since.
“When I met him I thought, ‘let’s get him back to basics,'” Faxon says. “My goal was to get him freed-up and confident in his stroke. It doesn’t have to be perfect. ”
That’s a common theme whenever the pair talk about how they turned around Rory’s performances on the green. They don’t forgo technical work altogether; Rory says he’ll use a mirror about once a week to make sure his eyes are level, and they don’t have the right angle, as they tend to do, and that he keeps making his right elbow into his side more. But it’s all very light touch, by design.
“I think there’s an overabundance of putting training aids, in the sense that players will tend to have the overeliance on those,” Faxon says. “When in reality, 90 percent of what you do with putting happens before you hit the putt.”
Making practice fun
Green-reading, visualization, speed control, pre-shot routines; those took the priority. Improving those don’t mean drills, but something more akin to games. One of their go-tos is practicing hitting the same putt different speeds: Soft and hard, so it enters the hole at different areas.
“It opens a person creativity,” Faxon says of the drill. “It helps your visualization and makes it more artful.”
Whatever it does, Rory enjoys it.
“It’s become almost less like practice,” adds McIlroy. “He’s just sort of simplified the whole thing and put a lot more into it, the way I play the rest of the game.”
Rory and Faxon talk a lot, too. About the process. About keeping things big picture. About accepting that not every putt is going to go in – and how that’s ok. Rory didn’t have to worry about that much on Thursday. After that short par-saver on the first, the World No. Long birdie looks on the 7th and 8th holes, along with a 12-foot par saver after bunker trouble on the 5th.
“Putts like those are huge for momentum,” he said after his round. “Walking up to those greens, I was accepting that I was just trying to give myself 10 or 15 feet, knowing I had a chance to make them.”
It’s the kind of artsy, conceptual stuff that Rory uses to paint a picture off the tee. That’s helped him find his flow on the greens.
Faxon, for his part, loves to see it. Not for his coach, but rather, as his peer. There was maybe no golfer greater than Faxon at wielding his putter as a paintbrush. And he appreciates good art when he sees it.
“It was beautiful to watch. He just looked so comfortable over the ball, so instinctive and reactive, ”he says of Rory. “People see that confidence in Rory over his full shots. I want them to feel the same about Rory’s putting as they do his driving. ”
Thursday at Brookline was any indication, he could work with Rory that proves Faxon’s masterpiece.