John Huggan: McIlroy/Spieth a ‘likeable rivalry’

The rivalry between golf’s likeable top two players promises to fascinate fans for years to come

The rivalry between golf’s likeable top two players promises to fascinate fans for years to come

The great thing is they are so different as golfers, their various strengths and weaknesses coming together to represent the almost perfect contrast. Where Rory McIlroy is surely the most consistently accurate of the game’s longest hitters, Jordan Spieth has the best all-round short game on any tour. Where Rory is the superior short putter, Jordan is the better of the two in the mid-to-long range department. But what both have in common is a breadth of appeal that covers the media, the commercial world, the fans and, perhaps most attractively, their peers on tour. Whatever is said about their qualities on the course, both are thoroughly likeable human beings.

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So it is that, in a sport that has always thrived on the existence of intense rivalries – “The Great Triumvirate” of Harry Vardon, JH Taylor and James Braid the first more than a century ago – the McIlroy/Spieth dynamic has real potential to be professional golf’s biggest selling point over the next couple of decades. With the game crying out for a serious head-to-head match-up in the post-Tiger era – the 14-time major champion was almost totally dominant – it is vital to golf’s long-term future that these two young men (McIlroy is 26, Spieth 22) continue to thrive.

That they are so close in age is the most encouraging aspect of the burgeoning contest that has seen McIlroy and Spieth win four of the last five major championships. Being almost direct contemporaries is so important. When, for example, Jack Nicklaus ruled the world’s fairways, it seemed like the Golden Bear was almost always searching for replacements to take on.

First Nicklaus saw off Arnold Palmer, ten years his senior. Then Lee Trevino came along. But, although the same age as Nicklaus, “Supermex” took a relatively long time to make it from the US Marines to the PGA Tour. Only in his late 20s did he emerge as a true world-class player. Then it was Tom Watson’s turn. While he and Nicklaus had their iconic moments – Turnberry 1977 and Pebble Beach 1982 being the prime examples – their time together at the top was doomed to be cut short by the full decade separating them in age.

“One of the great things about the dynamic between Rory and Jordan is that they are both so young,” agrees former Presidents Cup player Frank Nobilo, now a respected analyst for America’s Golf Channel. “To be dominating the sport and to have the world numbers one and two that young is extremely healthy for our sport. They got at it in different ways too. Rory is very dynamic; Spieth appears to be a lot more cerebral, plays within himself and has a mind well beyond his years. Add in the fact that they come from different sides of the Atlantic and you have what it takes to make a great rivalry. Their styles are different too, which is great. I think styles make fights, as they often say.”

As you’d expect, neither of the two protagonists is ever anything but complimentary about the other. Both are too smart to ever say anything that might be perceived as inflammatory or provocative.

“I’m not surprised at all that the narrative has gone from me to Jordan and both of us being here,” said McIlroy in his pre-US PGA Championship press conference at Whistling Straits last Wednesday. “Jordan has played some phenomenal golf over the last 12 months. By winning the first two majors this year and coming so close at St Andrews last month he has deserved to take up a lot of the limelight. His is one of the best years of golf we have seen in a long, long time.” There was time, however, for the mildest of hints that McIlroy – the world No.1 remember – still sees himself as the top dog, the man owning the heavyweight title belt until someone knocks him out.

“A year ago after I won this tournament we were entering the ‘Rory era’,” he said with a smile. “Then Jordan wins the Masters and it’s the ‘Jordan era’. Eras seem to last six months now instead of 20 years. But that’s the way the world is. Social media and everything else has to be so instant.

“Of course, whenever you see someone put together a season like Jordan has, you become motivated. He should be proud of his performances he put in at the Masters and the US Open. They were inspirational. And he handled it all so well. I’m not much older than him, but I’m not sure I would have handled it quite as well as he did. But it’s all motivation for me to go out and try to play even better.”

As for Spieth – who started the year with the relatively modest goal of making the 36-hole cut in all four majors – he was this week quick to get on record his pleasure at seeing McIlroy return to action after injury. And, asked what part of his rival’s game he coveted, he was equally speedy in responding.

“I wish I could hit the ball as far as he does,” he said before Thursday’s opening round. “I work towards that. I’ve gotten a little bit longer each year and hopefully will continue to do so.

“But when Rory is driving the ball well – just like Dustin (Johnson) and Bubba (Watson) – he is playing a different golf course. I certainly envy that.

“There’s not much I can do about it right now though, except try to hit my approaches even closer and make a few putts.”

Still, you get the impression that neither man does actually feel any sort of animosity toward the other. The publically expressed mutual respect does appear to transfer seamlessly into private. Crucially too, both appear to relish the prospect of going at it head-to-head, a fact obvious from their interaction over the first two days of 2015’s fourth and final major. There was plenty of chat, but it was obvious that neither wanted to “lose” to the other.

So there is much to look forward to in the years ahead, especially when one considers the likes of twenty-somethings Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama, Patrick Reed, Justin Thomas, Danny Willett, Tommy Fleetwood and Eddie Pepperell will all be looking to snaffle their share of the Grand Slam pie.

But all of the above are at least half a step behind the top two on the world rankings, even Fowler, who has won the Players Championship and the Scottish Open this year. Set alongside McIlroy especially, the 26-year-old Californian appears puny to the point of being intimidated. Earlier this year in Abu Dhabi, the Northern Irishman was out-driving Fowler by at least 60 yards.

So we’re down to the “Big Two”. Both McIlroy and Spieth, it would seem likely, will have their moments of superiority. Both will have their periods of ascendency. And both will hopefully continue to project a clean-cut and personable image that will only enhance the sport that has already made them rich beyond imagination.

“The game is in good hands,” confirms former Open champion Phil Mickelson. “We’ve got a quality group of guys that are also great players but also great people.”