Rory McIlroy finished tied for 10th at the Masters on Sunday, faltering in the final two rounds after entering the weekend in the final pairing and just one shot off Jordan Spieth’s lead.
On Saturday, McIlroy shot a 77 to fall five shots off the lead and out of real contention. On Sunday, he shot a 71 that featured seven birdies and six bogies. After his round on Sunday, McIlroy chalked up his disappointing weekend to mental struggles. But there may be a more conventional explanation for his play of late: a new putting grip.
In March, leading up to the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, McIlroy unveiled a cross-handed putting grip, with his left hand below his right. McIlroy putted well at Doral, entering Sunday with a 54-hole lead before shooting a disappointing 74 to end up tied for third.
At Augusta over the weekend, McIlroy looked particularly at odds with his putter. It’s worth noting that Augusta’s greens are notoriously unforgiving, but McIlroy nevertheless struggled more than usual — and it arguably cost him the tournament.
Because he drives the ball so far and hits such sharp approaches with his irons, McIlroy often finds himself in prime position for birdie and eagle opportunities. McIlroy was less sharp off the tee and with his approaches at Augusta, largely because wind played a big factor. But his putting was the real problem.
Over the course of his four rounds, McIlroy averaged a 1.71 putts, which was among the worst of the golfers who made the cut. If he’d averaged 1.64 putts per hole — just .05 better, say — he would have made up five strokes over 72 holes. That would have put him in first place.
Putting has been the story of McIlroy’s 2016 campaign: although he is ranked third in the world, in putting he ranks 45th. In 2014, when he was world no. 1, he was also no. 1 on tour in putting average, although, again, that is helped by his length off the tee and from the fairway, creating easier putts.
Of course, putting is also inextricably linked to the mental side of golf. McIlroy said repeatedly that he felt added pressure at Augusta because it is the last of the majors he has yet to win.
“This is the one that I haven’t won and this is the one I want to win more than anything else. I won a Claret Jug, I want to win more. I won a Wanamaker [Trophy], I won the US Open, but this is the one that I haven’t,” McIlroy said. “Once I overcome that mental hurdle that I’m struggling with at the minute, then I know how to play this course. I’ve played this course very well before and I can string good rounds together here, but it’s just a matter of doing it.”
McIlroy’s disappointing Masters was likely caused by some combination of his mental struggles and his new putting grip. One way or the other, he’ll have to wait a full year before he has another shot at the green jacket, and at the career grand slam.