How to 'hack' your golf game like Rory McIlroy did in his 2022 FedExCup-winning season

As GolfPass' newest 'Pop-up Clinic' series reveals, it's not what you might expect.
Rory McIlroy gives a "Pop-Up Clinic" at the Palm Beach Par 3 Golf Course for Youth on Course members on Oct. 5, 2022.

The concept of "life hacks" is appealing to almost anyone. The idea of making one seemingly small change that has cascading benefits all over your life is extremely attractive at a time when everyone is busier and busier.

Believe it or not, this can apply to golfers as well, from amateurs like you and me to four-time major champion and 2022 FedExCup champion Rory McIlroy.

If you've watched professional golf over the past decade, you've probably heard a few familiar refrains. One of them: that Rory McIlroy is one of the best drivers of the golf ball in the world.

In fact, over the last decade, he's been the best. Since 2012, McIlroy has never finished outside the top 6 in the Strokes Gained: Off The Tee statistic, save for his injury-shortened 2015 season. He has finished first in that statistic as often as he has finished sixth: three times each. From the second shot forward, golf courses are shorter and easier for McIlroy than they are for his peers.

But driving the ball long and straight isn't everything in golf, which is why it is noteworthy that McIlroy's most important area of excellence in 2022 - a year in which he won the FedExCup for a record-setting third time - comes all the way at the other end of his golf bag.

McIlroy's proximity-to-the-hole stats averages in 2022 speak loudly. From 50 to 125 yards, he was 22nd on the PGA Tour, with an average proximity of 16 feet, 11 inches. And from between 125 yards and 150 yards, his proximity was 19 feet, 8 inches, good for 9th on tour.

"Improving my wedge play over the past year or so has helped me play better golf," said McIlroy at the beginning of a clinic he and GolfPass instructor Martin Hall gave earlier this month at the oceanside Palm Beach Par 3 golf course in Florida. "It takes pressure off the rest of my game."

Think about it: if you're a strong wedge player, not only are you able to attack the pin on short par 4s and three-shot par 5s, you can deal with bad tee shots better than your buddies. Lost a drive into the trees? You can pitch out, wedge it on and hole a putt to save par.

In this way, improving your wedge play becomes a valuable "golf hack."

"I think if you can swing your wedges well," McIlroy said, "that can feed into the rest of your game as well."

Not only that, but McIlroy knows having solid fundamentals with your wedges can directly influence your full swing with all clubs. "If you can swing a wedge well, there's no reason why you can't swing a 6 iron well or why you can't swing a driver well," he said.

The $64,000 question: how can amateur golfers improve their wedge play? The short answer: by following McIlroy's advice in GolfPass' latest edition of Pop-Up Clinic. You might think that the way a world-class pro practices wedge play doesn't apply to you, but if you watch the clinic, you may be shocked at how simple and relatable it is.

Practice range: Wedge Warm-Up

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Segment 1 - Wedge Warm-Up

When you first arrive at the range, it's okay to hit your first few shots to "Nowhereland," McIlroy says. "But then, as you start to get warmed up, you'll start to focus in on trying to hit your certain numbers."

In McIlroy's case, though, those specific numbers only start when he's at least 50 yards away from the pin. Inside of that distance, he's relying on feel, instinct and experience to help him calibrate each individual shot.

He likens it to throwing a ball. When you or I throw a ball to a person or a target, we're not calculating the specific amount of power necessary to throw it the right distance. We're feeling it. This encourages a seamless blend of technique and innate touch that translates to golf.

"I'm not thinking that it's 25 yards, I'm not thinking about the swing I'm trying to make," McIlroy reiterated in the following segment. "I'm literally just trying to focus on where I want the ball to land. I'm focusing on my landing spot and I'm just trying to let my body react to that visual."

Three wedges, nine 'stock' yardages

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Segment 4 - Distance Control

How far does Rory McIlroy hit his 60-degree lob wedge?

There's not one answer, but three: about 85, 95 and 105 yards. This is where just a little bit of mechanics can go a long way toward helping you feel like you're ever uncomfortably in between two shots or clubs.

He accomplishes this by combining two very simple aspects of his swing: backswing length and pace. For a "full" 105-yards wing, McIlroy makes a full backswing and unleashed his downswing at a stock pace. To take 10 yards off, he restricts his backswing to about three-quarters - where his left shoulder is under his chin - and then continues with a stock downswing pace. For the 85-yard shot, he takes the club back to that same three-quarter position but also ratchets his downswing pace to about three-quarter speed as well. With those two simple modulations, McIlroy has three reliable "stock" yardages for a single club. And he exports them to his 54-degree sand wedge and 47-degree pitching wedge, giving himself known stock shots all the way up to about 145 yards with his pitching wedge.

"I have three different wedges and I have three yardages for each wedge," said McIlroy, "so I literally have nine yardages that are very comfortable for me from 84 yards all the way up through 145."

DBalance aggression with course management

It's understandable to think that practically every time you have a wedge in your hand, you'll want to take dead aim at the flag. And why McIlroy admits that wedge distances enable him to be aggressive, there still needs to be room for error, even for someone of his caliber.

"You mightn't aim directly at the pin, but you could aim maybe five yards left, five yards right. I think with your wedges, you want to give yourself a little bit of margin for error and you have to be disciplined to play away from pins sometimes," he said, adding: "Distance control is much more important with wedges than getting it on line."

Pick a spot in front of the ball - even with wedges

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Segment 6 - Clean Clubface

One of the most common aspects of pros' pre-shot routines that very few amateurs bother with is aiming not solely at a downrange target, but at a spot close in front of the golf ball. Jack Nicklaus and other legends are relatively well-known for doing this on drives and long iron shots, but McIlroy preaches doing the same even on wedge shots as well. You may have heard this referred to by others as an "intermediate target."

"I think it's easier for most people to aim at something closer to them than it is something far away," he said. Alignment is something that pros always get right, and it often comes down to discipline in the routine of picking intermediate targets.

To watch GolfPass' new Pop-Up Golf Clinic: Wedge Play with Rory McIlroy in its entirety, click here.

How did one of the world's elite golfers raise his game in 2022 en route to his third FedEx Cup Championship? It's all revealed in Rory McIlroy's latest Pop-Up Clinic.

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
Commented on

Interesting article. Contrary to what many players believe, ball-striking, not the short game, plays the biggest role in scoring success (basically, by a 2 to 1 ratio). Two of the best amateurs I've ever played with were fantastic wedge players. I never have been; I've always been better, mostly, at driving. As Rory's experience shows, both seem vital.

It's hard to believe some humans can hit the ball 105 yards with a 60-degree wedge.

Good comments, too, about the value of backswing length and pace to control wedge distance.

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How to 'hack' your golf game like Rory McIlroy did in his 2022 FedExCup-winning season