“You know he’s going to step up there and hit it past you,” Rahm conceded this week.
“It’s more of a surprise when maybe he loosely hits a good one and we get close to him, right?”
These pros, especially the top 30 who have gathered this week to conclude a season, do many improbable things with their crooked sticks. High on that list is what the defending Tour Championship champion does when he pulls the longest of those and sets about breaking two or three laws of physics.
Simply, no one that size – let’s say 5-9, 160 pounds – should hit the ball that frickin’ far.
There’s no shortage of ridiculous power hitters in Atlanta, and now for the rest of this week while the Braves are out of town, there’s one more to stand in for them.
Oh, and shouldn’t McIlroy and Ozzie Albies get together sometime and have a good laugh at all the big ‘uns they’ve left behind?
Long hitters abound at East Lake this week. The longest, by far, is McIlroy, who comfortably leads the PGA Tour in driving distance. Here, for comparison sake, are the driving average numbers in the last two pairings here Thursday: Scottie Scheffler (309.5 yards, 29th on Tour); Viktor Hovland (307.3 yards, 43rd); Rahm (313.3 yards, 12th) and McIlroy (325.7 yards, 1st).
We had come to know our big hitters as XL personalities (John Daly), bodybuilders who got lost on the way to the gym (Bryson DeChambeau), free-wheeling eccentrics (Bubba Watson) and long, lean uber athletes (Dustin Johnson). Then along came the modestly proportioned McIlroy – he knows his way around a free weight to be sure, but he still wouldn’t startle you in a dark alley – changing everything.
When he decides to cut loose, there can be jaw-dropping results. This year at the Genesis Scottish Open, McIlroy hit the longest drive of his life in official competition, 427 yards. Yes, it was greatly wind- and topography-aided. But no matter if he was playing in a wind tunnel on an airport runway, that number beggars belief.
By comparison, the 388-yard drive he hit at the Genesis Invitation in Los Angeles was but a chip shot.
There have been detailed analyses into his swing, tackling the subject of how such a normal-looking fellow could have such abnormal length. Works date back to when he was an amateur, as one performance center determined that he was able to rotate his hips through his swing at twice the speed of his peers. There were other variables, but, frankly, I began to glaze over.
Just as there have been numerous articles in golf magazines about how you, another regular-sized bloke, can hit it farther by studying certain fine points of McIlroy’s swing.
Here, we must issue a warning: If you do indeed try to just once mimic McIlroy’s big turn and Gumby-like flexibility and supersonic clubhead speed, you will spend the next two weeks in traction.
“He may be smaller in height, but he’s pretty athletic, so that’s why he hits the ball really far,” Scheffler said.
And you are not.
McIlroy was asked Wednesday to dumb down all the science as much as possible and get to the root of the question: Just how do you hit it so frickin’ far?
“You have to train it, you have to train moving the club. The faster that you can move the club into the ball, the faster the ball’s going to come off the face and the further it’s going to go,” he said. Sounds simple enough, eh? Through hard training, he figures he’s added five miles an hour of clubhead speed in the last three years.
Ah, yes, then, there’s the equipment.
“If you see the jump I made from, like, 2014, 2015 to where I’m now, I’ve gained nearly 20 yards in driving distance,” McIlroy said. “A lot of it is to do with training and a lot of it is to do with working on it. But there’s also partly to do with technology and how far the drivers go now and the ball goes. It’s a combination of both.”
As Scheffler is quick to point out, hitting it far doesn’t mean a whole lot if you’re only hitting it deeper into the woods. Then, only the squirrels and the ticks appreciate you.
“Height, I guess, could help him,” he said. “Maybe if he was my height (6-3) he would hit it even further. But it may be harder for him to control. So it’s kind of finding that balance. And Rory’s been a guy for the last 15 years of professional golf that’s been able to strike a really good balance with having extreme power off the tee but still being able to hit enough fairways.”
Like most celebrity marriages and nuclear fission, there is no way for us common folk to truly understand the way McIlroy mashes it. Just stand back and marvel at the possibilities.
He has employed the power with particular ruthlessness at East Lake, winning the FedEx Cup here three times. The most recent just last year when he started the tournament six shots back due to the staggered scoring, fell as much as 10 back with a stumbling start, and still ran down Scheffler.
Last year, he was “energized” as the leading spokesman for the PGA Tour during its battle with LIV. Now that an at least temporary truce has been called while golf sorts out its great struggle, McIlroy finds himself in a quite different mental space this time.
As he put it, “I feel like everything’s a little more settled. I remember this time last year being on a board call at 7:30 in the morning.
“I’ve been able to focus a little bit more just on golf and my game and even able to take two days at home between Chicago and here, getting to spend some time with the girls. That’s been really nice.”
The powers that be come and go. Power off the tee, that he can count on.