The confusing case of Rory McIlroy's golf swing, explained


Jared C. Tilton

The gutting loss that will forever haunt Rory McIlroy has nothing to do with those missed putts.

Rory is a good putter who runs hot and cold, and the two short putts he missed on the 70th and 72nd holes of the U.S. Open are indicative of a small glitch McIlroy himself says he fights under pressure.

But it's not the most important question facing McIlroy now. The more interesting, and frankly, confusing one is about his golf swing.

Whether it's better or worse is subjective, but what is a fact is that Rory's golf swing is different now. Different from the last time he was winning majors. Different, even, than a year ago.

Swing-watchers know it. People close to Rory's world know it. Rory, himself, even knows it.

"My technique is nowhere near as good as it used to be," an exasperated Rory said after his T-7 finish at last year's PGA Championship, caught by Netflix cameras as part of Season Two of Full Swing. "I almost feel like I wanna do a complete reboot. I do, I do. Because I feel like it's the only way I'm going to break through. It feels so far away."

The question is, how much does it matter? That's what I can't figure out.

Getting to the Xs and Os, back in 2014, the key difference was that Rory's arms stayed a little closer to him, and moved more vertically up on the backswing.

The clubhead tracked outside his hands, too, and the combination of these two things meant that at the top of his backswing, the clubhead and shaft were pretty much in line with his hands, when looking down the line.

This stayed the case until about 2020, coincidentally the year of Bryson DeChambeau's first U.S. Open victory. Rory admitted he got "sucked into" swinging for more speed following Bryson's Winged Foot win, and by that measure, it worked: 2024 Rory is about three miles per hour faster, on average, than 2012 Rory, with the second-best Power Percentage on the PGA Tour.

Editor's Note: The cameras angles aren't perfect. I tried my best to match, but take every video comparison with a grain of salt.


2019 Wells Fargo Championship vs. 2021 PGA Championship

That's the clearest point when Rory's golf swing began to change into what we see today. His arms began stretching further out and away from his body on the takeaway, and the clubhead tracked less outside his hands.


2013 PGA Championship vs. 2024 Players Championship vs. 2014 PGA Championship

At the top of his backswing, Rory's arms can often appear flatter these days—more around his body, as opposed to up. His club is tends more across the line now, too (meaning it's pointing to the right of his hands), which can affect his wrist angles.


2014 PGA Championship vs. 2024 PGA


2014 PGA Championship vs. 2024 PGA Championship


But again, how much does this matter? Golf's Hall of Fame, which lives a 7-iron away from the most heartbreaking moment of Rory's career, is littered with less-than-perfect backswing positions. Rory's body is also different now than it was. What worked for him in 2014 might not be best for him now.

"It's not that people can't play good golf," one coach told me. "It's that not everyone can play good golf that way.”


Walter Iooss Jr.

The main reason why many coaches like to see the clubhead in line with the hands at the top is because it aligns the weight of the club with the direction your arms pull on the downswing.

Think of it like a water tube behind a turning boat. The further away the tube is from the boat when the boat turns left, the more the tube will swing out to the right before re-aligning with the direction of the boat.


When the club gets across from the hands, you'll often see good players fling the weight of the club behind their hands and body. Usually they get the club stuck so far behind their hands that they never get it around in front of them, and miss out to the right. This is happening a lot to Rory these days: This season, he's missing fairways to the right about 60 percent more than he's missing them to the left, and they were a common theme during his final round at Pinehurst.

But players who do this tend to throw in some wicked left misses, especially under pressure, because they'll overcorrect with an aggressive roll of their wrists. Think about where Rory started missing on the closing stretches of his final two rounds. He yanked his approach left of the 16th green on Saturday, then did the same on Sunday, then missed his driver left on 18.

So, does it matter? And should he change it?

There are some stats to suggest there’s room for improvement, but categorical answers are admittedly hard to find.

  • Rory's about 0.7 strokes worse in SG: Off The Tee his past four years on tour than his first four years as a full-time PGA Tour player, but that may be explained by an influx of young, athletic bombers who can get closer to Rory off the tee than in the past.
  • His proximity to the hole is worse, but within a paltry two feet.
  • Rory's about 0.07 shots worse from SG: Approach these days, though his last two seasons he's finished above his 12-season SG: Approach average.

As Paul McGinley rightly pointed out to Brandel Chamblee when he made a similar point after the final round on Golf Channel's Live From broadcast: Rory has all the tools to win, and was two short putts away from lifting the trophy. This a year after falling short to a career performance from Wyndham Clark, which followed a career performance from Cameron Smith a year before that.

It's scary to say that a great golfer should make some changes because he could get even better, but in Rory's case, my gut reaction is that the race car needs some minor tuning. It's not the biggest change, as far as golf swing changes go. We're talking tweaks here, not overhauls.

Besides, if anecdotes count for anything, Rory's actions suggest he thinks there's room for some technical improvement, too:

It’s a problem of abundance, both of talent and potential. It's a quintessentially Rory one, too. He’s an impossibly good ball-striker by any objective metric; the No. 3-ranked player in the world with the most consistent major record of any player of his generation. Only with Rory could we wonder if he’s leaving even more on the table.