Brad Faxon’s greatest Bay Hill success came via Rory McIlroy

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ORLANDO, Fla. — Brad Faxon competed in the Arnold Palmer Invitational 24 times and banked more than $600,000 at the tournament, but his greatest success at Bay Hill came in a year when he didn’t play, didn’t even come to the course, and lost $1,800.

That was in 2018, when Rory McIlroy ended an 18-month winless spell at the API with the most dominant putting display of his career. Just six days earlier, McIlroy had started working with Faxon, one of the most celebrated putters in PGA Tour history.

“Look, I think I had a little bit to do with it but I didn’t have a lot to do with it. He’s so talented, just letting him be more like himself is a big part of it,” the self-effacing veteran said Wednesday at Bay Hill, where he twice finished runner-up.

Three years ago, Faxon had been playing a PGA Tour Champions event in Newport Beach, California, when he got a text on Saturday night from McIlroy asking if they could meet two days later at the Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Florida. “I had booked a flight to come home Monday morning out of LAX and it was JetBlue with the big lie-down chairs. I got it for like $300,” Faxon said, still laughing at the memory. “I had to go online to American Airlines and change my ticket. It cost me, like, $1,800.”

He texted his wife, Dory, to tell her he’d be home early on the redeye. “So you like Rory McIlroy more than you like me?” she texted back.

“Right now, yes,” he replied, with an impressive mix of courage and foolhardiness.

Their scheduled hour on the Bear’s Club putting green that March 12 morning turned into three before McIlroy flew up to Orlando. Victory came six days later and since then McIlroy has added wins at the Players Championship, a WGC and the FedEx Cup. He credits his putting guru with helping him to those wins.

“We all get into this mindset out here that you need to do everything absolutely perfectly, and you don’t,” McIlroy said. “That’s one of the big things. That mindset of not trying to get to perfection sort of frees you up. That’s what he’s given me. Any time I spend time with him I feel like I have a little more freedom, or there’s not as much pressure on me to hit perfect shots.”

“I went away from that at Riviera because I was thinking so much about my swing and trying to be perfect. And I was like, ‘Well, that doesn’t work!”

The World No. 8 missed the cut at that Genesis Invitational, his first weekend off since the 2019 Open Championship at Royal Portrush. He begins his latest effort at Arnie’s place coming off another top-six finish at last week’s WGC-Workday Championship. McIlroy is nearing the end of a stretch where he will have played seven events in eight weeks, so Faxon drove up from his home in Palm Beach Gardens Wednesday morning to walk along during the pro-am.

“It’s the whole approach to things, you know?” McIlroy explained when asked what they discussed along the way at Bay Hill. “There’s times when you need to work on technique and focus on that aspect, but sometimes you just need to visualize things and feel it. I went down a path with my putting that was a little more technical, and he’s just brought a little more feel back into it. And that sort of can bleed through the rest of my game, which is nice.”

Faxon admitted that he was apprehensive during that first session with McIlroy. “Rory’s not an intimidating person as far as personality goes. He’s an easy guy to like and to get to know, but I was extremely nervous because I take what I do very seriously,” he said. “I know how good a player he is and how good he wants to be. I didn’t want to screw up my first chance.”

He didn’t. McIlroy had just 100 putts for 72 holes that week. “Turned out better than I could have dreamed,” Faxon said, laughing. Their relationship today is one of relaxed comfort.

“As I’ve gotten to know him, I can say things that I would have been afraid to say at first. I can throw my opinion out there. I can use my experience,” the coach said. Faxon’s career success—he won eight times on Tour—means that work conversations between he and McIlroy differ from those of a typical putting coach.

“We talk very little about mechanics, about things like path and face rotation,” Faxon said. “We talk more about situations.”

The two play together occasionally at home in Palm Beach Gardens. “I played with him recently at the Grove,” the short-hitting senior said with a wry smile. “Same tee. There were times he didn’t outdrive me by more than 30 or 40 yards.”

He paused for a beat. “There were some that were 60 yards.”

Now nearing 60, Faxon won’t be emulating his student’s prodigious distance. But nor will McIlroy mirror Faxon’s infamous pursuit of a better swing, a quixotic career-long quest that led to him seeing dozens of instructors over the years.

“I do love the fact that he has a curious mind and he’s not afraid to try things,” McIlroy said. Then he added with a grin: “But he’s never gone to see anyone about his putting.”

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