Rory McIlroy dug himself a hole too deep to climb out of over the first two days of the Wells Fargo Championship at TPC Potomac. The four-time major champion shot even par to make the cut on the number at his last start ahead of the PGA Championship before mowing down the field on the weekend.
McIlroy’s 68-68 on Saturday and Sunday was bested by only one player in the field (Cameron Young) and rocketed him from an early tee time on Saturday morning to a late finish on Sunday afternoon. With a fifth-place finish at TPC Potomac and a solo second place at the Masters, McIlroy now takes two straight top fives into the PGA Championship for the first time since 2017 (he finished T22 at Quail Hollow at that PGA).
More importantly, perhaps, is that McIlroy is hitting the ball quite well. After leading the Masters field in strokes gained from tee to green (via Data Golf), he again finished in the top 10 in that category at Wells Fargo. An approach game that has lacked at times this season has been stellar for two straight events, and the distance that has given McIlroy the most fits (50-125 yards) was a place he improved immensely over 72 holes at TPC Potomac.
Justin Ray wrote about this earlier this week, but on the season McIlroy’s average proximity to the hole from that distance was 24 feet, and his aggregate score was 3 over. Neither of those numbers is any good at all, and McIlroy improved them to 17 feet and 2 under in tough conditions. That is certainly not the only path to victory or competitiveness at major championships for McIlroy, but it seems to be the most straightforward.
McIlroy has a big summer on deck. His next start will be at the PGA at Southern Hills before the U.S. Open at Brookline and the Open Championship at St. Andrews, a golf course he has owned for parts of his career. His chances to win a major with how well he’s been driving it have not been this good for a few years now, and he’ll go to some venues that are tailor-made for him.
“I’m really happy with where my game is,” said McIlroy. “I think just another week of practicing and playing. … My approach game’s much better than it has been. Yeah, I think like little things … like shot selection. Like the shot selection into 16 there trying to hit a hard wedge and not quite getting all of it, hitting the slope, spinning back to the front of the green. You hit a three-quarter 9-iron, that maybe doesn’t happen. … Sometimes it’s just like picking the right shot at the right time, stuff like that. But that’s … only stuff that you can learn from playing tournament golf, I guess.”
It would be easy to look at McIlroy’s game a year ago going into the PGA at Kiawah and say he was playing better then than he is now because he went into the second major last year off of a win at this tournament. However, his ball-striking was even better this time around than it was last year, and despite not winning it seems as if everything is more in order this time around. A good thing, too, because McIlroy finished T49 at that PGA.
“I’m playing good, playing really good,” McIlroy said. “No complaints with the game. Everything feels pretty solid. As I said, just a couple things here and there coming down the stretch, a couple missed putts, but really apart from that I feel like the game’s in good shape.”
There are many things that must happen for McIlroy (or anyone) to win a major. For Rory specifically, it’s often his approach play (especially from shorter distances) and avoiding blow-up rounds (his 73 in Round 2 this week nearly led to a missed cut). However, he’s certainly hitting the ball well enough — both statistically and anecdotally — to contend for what would be a fifth major to add to his already-oversized collection.
A handful of players will go to Tulsa among the favorites to win what should be another lights-out PGA Championship. Based on how the last few weeks have gone, the two at the very top of that list should perhaps also be the two that finished at the top of the Masters leaderboard. Scottie Scheffler (with four wins this year) is playing by far the best golf of anyone in the world, but Rory McIlroy — after a runner-up at Augusta National and a nice showing this week at TPC Potomac — might be next up on that list.