BROOKLINE, Mass. — “Why don’t you play here?”
Those were the words of caddy Harry Diamond, spoken lightly and politely to Rory McIlroy.
Technically it was a question, but with an undertone of disapproval. The kind that invokes a sense of guilt. The only possible type of one of your closest friends. Someone who really knows you and cares about you.
It was all Rory needed to hear. He put down the long iron he was holding on top of his golf bag, looked away, and started walking toward the edge of the fairway.
“Shouldn’t you be doing that?” a fan, holding a rapidly emptying beer, asked Harry. Harry stood still and placed the two clubs that Rory had left in his golf bag: a 4-iron and a 5-wood.
“72 yards,” McIlroy said when he came back.
A wedge came out, and the ball went diagonally back toward the center of the fairway. A few minutes later, Rory’s ball was 13 feet from the pin and then into the hole for a potentially tournament-defining par.
Rory McIlroy has a bad habit. One that keeps coming up, as bad habits often do. It stems from good intentions, but it’s the main reason Rory hasn’t won in his last 29 big starts.
It’s not that Rory makes mistakes, it’s that he’ll never make a single one. He will try to recover from a bad blow with a heroic one. When it doesn’t work, it means that one error becomes two. That’s enough for a bad hole, or two. Soon all the thread of the round is pulled until what was once beautiful is undone.
On Saturday at The Country Club, Rory was pulling the strings once again.
From mid-fairway on the 12th hole, Rory left his short-sided short iron raw at the front of the green.
It was a hard shot, the wind had been gusty, but not an excuse for the one that followed. A chip that was too cute, which soon rolled back to his feet. He followed another too cute but slightly better chip, and spent the next few minutes lining up his five feet with his head in his hands.
Rory hooked his drive left on his next hole. Now was the time that his entire tournament was going to fall apart. We had seen it all before, sadly, and came to expect it.
While Harry was busy managing the crowd chaos around his ball, Rory initially looked for a 5-wood to get through the trees. When Harry returned, Rory had decided on a different plan.
“I was ready to hit a 4-iron with my front foot and hit it over those trees,” he said.
The shot Rory was considering was incredibly difficult. The lower route was a raised gap of about three meters, if that. The high route required lifting his 4-iron off a rough lie, over trees and water on a green 206 yards away.
“[Harry] He told me, ‘Look, you could do it, but you might as well make a 7 or 8 doing it,’” Rory said after his third round, a 73, which leaves him three off the lead heading into Sunday. “He said, ‘Look, why don’t you play here? Do not even think about it'”.
Rory decided to listen: “For once,” he joked. The sequence of events led to Rory saving the pair, which, according to the USGA Probability of Victory Chart, raised his chances of victory from 8.6 to 11.3 percent.
Cut your losses and move on
There’s no question what the best statistical play is in a place like this, both from golfers competing at the US Open this week and from those playing the local municipal course later on.
According to the book by renowned statistician Mark Broadie, every shot counts, from 100 yards into the trees, tour players average 3.8 strokes to finish the rest of the hole (4.8 if you count their previously hit drive). That’s almost exactly one shot higher than it would be if the same distance drive landed on the fairway.
A hero shot gone wrong leaves you roughly where you started, but adds a full hit to your score along the way. Simply put, it means the risk is not worth the reward. That’s why statistician Scott Fawcett, the founder of the DECADE course management app based on Broadie’s insights, endorses a simple strategy: Move your ball back to safety, without incident. Cut your losses and move on.
“Tree recovery shots are the easiest place on the tour to gain shot fractions without too much risk,” says Fawcett. “However, the lure of taking a hero shot and earning more is very tempting.”
The lure was certainly tempting for Rory on Sunday afternoon, but this time, Harry got his way. He helped Rory avoid those instincts, and if Rory lifts the trophy on Sunday, it will be because his decision on the 13th hole kept him in contention.
“That’s the benefit of having a good caddy,” Rory said.
And, most importantly, a friend. The guy who takes care of you, wherever your drives end up.