Journalists like to tell stories. They mix in some analysis into their stories, but as more garnish than main course. After Rory McIlroy’s bad Sunday at the Masters in April, it was all about “the collapse.” A Golf.com article captures the emotional angst angle dominating the post-Masters’ coverage:
It’s because the expectations were so high, and the stakes so huge. History shows that players who cough up big leads in big tournaments often don’t get another chance, their psyche permanently shattered by thoughts of what might have been.
For two months, McIlroy could not escape the “collapse” questions — probably the hardest part of dealing with the loss. With his emphatic victory at the U.S. Open, the “story” inverted itself. It’s now all about his potential for greatness, his marketability, the end of the Tiger era, and so on …
Stepping back from these wild swings in evaluation, McIlroy’s performances provide compelling “leading indicators,” even his 2011 Masters and 2010 British Opens, just as Tiger Woods’ three consecutive U.S. Amateurs did. While the media focused on the “collapse,” the fact that a 21-year old held a 4 shot lead going into the final day provides more information about his future:
Tiger’s biggest leads going into a final day were 12 (1997 Masters), 10 (2000 US Open), and 6 (2000 Masters).
Jack’s biggest leads were 9 (1965 Masters) and 7 (1980 US Open).
McIlroy’s 63 at the 2010 British Open puts him in the elite company of 22 other golfers, ranging from good to great, including Nicklaus, Player, Faldo, Stewart, Price, Singh, Norman, and Weiskopf. There are a couple of “also rans” on that list, but none of these ever won a major.
At 22 (with 3 more majors to go before he turns 23), he already holds five Top 10 finishes in majors. By their 23rd birthdays, Tiger Woods held 7, Jack Nicklaus 5, Seve Ballesteros 3, and Tom Watson 0. The age at which players turned professional or semi-professional amateur muddies up these comparisons.
There are not many “false positives,” very strong players at early ages who fizzle. Sergio Garcia is one of the few. He had six Top 10 finishes in majors before turning 23 but has still not won — something McIlroy has already put behind him.
Conservatism in predictions for a player at such an early age makes strong statistical sense. After all, in the past 50 years, there have been only two guys on the Nicklaus-Woods plateau. Predicting 6 or 7 major victories for McIlroy would put him up in very tall company (Palmer, Trevino, Faldo), but the indicators to date lend themselves toward this level.
A final observations the weekend turned in considerable discussion by Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus, and others about “learning from” past failures, including determining level of aggressiveness, approach to final day, and other matters. My guess is that just being in the position multiple times, especially over a short time frame, generates practice in anticipating and dealing with the nerves that arise. It’s different for a guy who finds himself there once every five or ten years, such as Kenny Perry.