Sunday 11 December 2016

Dermot Gilleece: Tiger Woods a forgotten man as America laps up McIlroy-Spieth rivalry

Dermot Gilleece at the USPGA in Whistling Straits

Published 13/08/2015 | 12:16

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland walks across a green during a practice round prior to the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland walks across a green during a practice round prior to the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits

As I reached the level area of a pedestrian bridge to the practice ground at Whistling Straits, a familiar figure was heading towards me.

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On shaking hands and exchanging greetings, I felt obliged to offer the assurance: “Don’t worry, Rory. This isn’t an ambush.”

The defending champion had more than done his media duties a short time earlier during a lengthy session in the interview area. Now it was time to continue the more fundamental work of physical preparation for the 97th PGA Championship.

Turning to watch him skip down the steps and then display similar well-being while ascending another pedestrian bridge to the clubhouse, there wasn’t the slightest indication of trouble from a recently damaged left ankle.  And with roars of “Rory!, Rory! Rory!” from ground level, it was clear that his many American admirers approved.

McIlroy has become all the more important to them since the emergence this year of Jordan Spieth as a serious challenger for the world’s top ranking.  For two decades since the emergence of Tiger Woods, the American public have been desperately seeking a proper rivalry for this particular honour.

They thought they had it in this championship at Medinah in 1999 when a 19-year-old Sergio Garcia seriously challenged Woods for the title. In the process, he hit a much publicised, six-iron recovery shot from a potentially treacherous position at the base of a trip on the 70th hole.  Which was followed by an endearing, boyish skip up the fairway to watch the ball land.

Through a subsequent series of false dawns, however, the Spaniard failed to deliver. So attention turned to Phil Mickelson, only for him to follow a similar route. Woods continued to reign supreme, without a realistic challenger in sight. Then,  a supreme irony would see the arrival of McIlroy only for it to coincide with the apparently terminal demise of El Tigre.

But things are very different now, and McIlroy and Spieth were left in no doubt as to media expectation during their respective interview sessions yesterday.  In the event, neither player was rising to the bait.

Sample: “On a head-to-head in the eight rounds you guys have played together, the fact is you (McIlroy) have clearly been the better player.  Twenty-two shots better.  Do you attribute that to your simply being the more comfortable of the two?”

McIlroy: “I really don’t think you can look too much into the head-to-head when guys are playing together, especially in the first two rounds.  Maybe if it was a final round and we were on contention to win, you could maybe look into it a bit more …..”

In short, McIlroy wasn’t biting.  No more than Spieth did in response to similar probing. Yet for all their diplomacy, the pair are most definitely on a collision course, as far as the American media are concerned.

While Woods has become a forgotten man.

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