BROOKLINE, Mass.; – “Why don’t you just play out here?”
Those were the words from caddie Harry Diamond, spoken lightly and politely to Rory McIlroy.
Technically it was a question, but one with a subtext of disapproval. The kind that invokes a sense of guilt. The kind only possible from one of your closet friends. Someone who truly knows and cares about you.
It was all Rory needed to hear. He was holding his gaze sideways, and started packing to the edge of the fairway.
“Shouldn’t you be doing that?” one fan, holding a quickly-emptying beer, asked Harry. Harry stayed put, and placed the two clubs Rory had left out in his golf bag – a 4-iron and 5-wood.
“72 yards,” McIlroy said when he returned.
Out came a wedge, and went off the ball – diagonally backwards into the middle of the fairway. A few moments later, Rory’s ball was 13 feet from the pin, and then into the hole for a potentially tournament-defining par.
Rory McIlroy has a bad habit. One that keeps coming, as bad habits tend to do. It is the last major cause of death.
It’s not that Rory makes mistakes, it’s not just one in a row. He’ll try to recover from one bad shot with a heroic one. When it doesn’t work, it means one error becomes two. That’s enough to make for a bad hole, and then two. That’s enough to pull the thread of the round, until the whole thing is left unraveled.
On Saturday, at The Country Club, Rory was pulling the thread again.
From the middle of the fairway on the 12th hole, Rory left his little iron short-sided in the rough at the front of the green.
It was a tough shot – the wind had been gusting – but not an excuse for the one that followed. A chip that was too cute, that came rolling back down to his feet. Another too-cute-but-slightly better chip followed, and he spent the next few minutes lining up his five-footer with his head in his hands.
He snap-hooked his drive left on his next hole. Now the moment his entire tournament was going to fall apart.
As Harry was busy managing the chaos of the crowd around his member, Rory had first arrived for a 5-wood to thread through the trees. When Harry returned, Rory had settled on a different plan.
“I was ready to hit a 4-iron off my front foot and hit it up over those trees,” he said.
The shot Rory was considering was unfathomably difficult. The low route was an elevated gap of about the three yards, if that. The high route required lifting his 4-yard iron off a scratchy lie, over trees and water onto a green 206 yards away
“He said to me, ‘Look, you could pull it off, but you could do a 7 or an 8 doing it,'” He said after his third round, 73, Sunday. “’He said to me, Look, why don’t you just play out here? Don’t even think about it. ‘”
Rory decided to listen – “For once,” he joked. The sequence of events led to Rory saving par, which, according to the USGA’s win probability chart, raised his chances of victory from 8.6 to 11.3 percent.
Cut your losses and move on
There’s no doubting what the statistics say is the best move, from golfers competing in the US Open this week, to those playing your local municipal course down the road.
According to famous statistician Mark Broadie’s book, Every Shot Counts, from 100 yards in the threes, tour players average 3.8 strokes to finish the rest of the hole (4.8 if you count their previous hit drive). That’s almost exactly a shot higher than it would have driven the same distance landed in the fairway.
A hero shot goes wrong, but the whole stroke adds to your score along the way.
Simply put, the risk is not worth the reward. It’s why statistician Scott Fawcett, the founder of the DECADE course management app based on Broadie’s insights, endorses and simple strategy: Move your ball back to safety, uneventfully. Cut your losses and move on.
“Recovery shots from the trees are the easiest place on the road to a fracking operation,” Fawcett says. “However, the allure of hitting a hero shot and developing is more enticing.”
The allure was certainly enticing for Rory on Sunday afternoon, but this time, Harry had his way. He helped Rory stave off those instincts, and if Rory lifts the trophy on Sunday, he’ll be because of his decision the 13th hole kept him in the fight.
“That’s the benefit of having a good caddie,” he said.
And, more importantly, a friend. The kind who looks out for you, wherever your drives end up.