Friday 25 May 2018

'Free-rolling' Spieth feels no pressure as he vies for career Slam

Jordan Spieth. Photo:Getty Images
Jordan Spieth. Photo:Getty Images

Brian Keogh

Power is nothing without control.

It's a phrase made famous by an Italian tyre manufacturer but if there was a subliminal message for Rory McIlroy in Jordan Spieth's pre-tournament interview ahead of the US PGA Championship, it was that he has the iron play, the confidence, the putter and the moxie to capture his fourth Major and become the youngest man to complete the career Grand Slam.

Quail Hollow appears to have been tailor-made for McIlroy's power game - 7,600 yards of soft, tree-lined fairways, glue-like Bermuda rough and car bonnet greens.

Two wins and four top tens in seven appearances tell you all you need to know about McIlroy's credentials. But while Spieth repaid the Co Down man's compliments about his mental strength, describing the Holywood star as "one to fear", the 24-year-old American's self-assuredness is something to behold.

"Rory is a guy who is very difficult if you come into a one-on-one-type situation, no matter where it is, and especially in Majors, because he's not afraid to hit the shot," he said generously. "He plays so aggressively, and that's what you have to do to win.

"He's proven that. I mean, he won this tournament by eight shots. Obviously, that doesn't come from playing too safe.

"Even when he had the lead, he kept his foot on the gas pedal. He's done that for dozens of worldwide victories... he is one to fear in that position because of what he's capable of doing and how he's going to do it."

As for the career Grand Slam, Spieth deflected that question with the freedom of a man who, unlike McIlroy, has already won a Major this year (three in total since the most recent of McIlroy's four).

"Expectations, I really don't feel any," he said. "This is a chance to complete the career Grand Slam; I'm here, so I'm going to go ahead and try.

"But I believe I'm going to have plenty of chances, and I'm young enough to believe in my abilities that it will happen at some point.

"Do I have to be the youngest? No, I don't feel that kind of pressure. Would it be really cool? Absolutely… Expectations, I wouldn't even really put it on the radar."

He admitted there will be pressure but it's the pressure that comes with trying to win any Major championship and when pressed on how he manages to maintain his intensity without overloading himself with expectations, he conceded that the pressure will only start to tell if he goes a decade without hoisting the giant Wanamaker Trophy.

His outward calm is not so much confidence as the pressure release that comes with knowing you've got a 'big one' in the bag already this year.

"It was only two weeks ago that I was able to get the third leg, and that's so fresh in my mind," Spieth said.

"I'm so happy about that that I can't add pressure to this week. I'm free-rolling. And it feels good."

Ominously for the rest, he feels as relaxed as he's ever felt coming into a Major.

"Maybe since arriving at Chambers Bay after [winning] the [2015] Masters and just, you know, almost like I've accomplished something so great this year that anything else that happens, I can accept," he said. "That takes that pressure, that expectation away."

Spieth conceded that the pressure will ramp up if he's in the mix on the back nine on Sunday but when it comes to his rivalry with McIlroy, it's not so much the daunting prospect of trying to tame the Ulsterman in full flow but "what's it going to be like for the next 20, 25 years".

Spieth knows it's not a two-horse race these days but an ensemble production, name-checking Jon Rahm and Hideki Matsuyama as just two of six or eight young guns "all pushing each other to get better".

Those who believe he lacks the length to challenge McIlroy this week may remember that he was second to Jason Day on a 7,501-yard Whistling Straits in 2015.

Yes, he's losing 20 yards of run due to the soft fairways, but his superior iron play and that normally deadly putting stroke will be two major assets this week.

With the SubAir system keeping the greens extremely firm despite the rain, Spieth has an ace up his sleeve.

"You have to have unbelievable distance control out here, once you're in the fairway, to get the ball close to these pins," said Spieth, who is ranked second only to Dustin Johnson when it comes to hitting iron shots close this year.

"So it's going to be such a challenge to have close birdie putts out here from the looks of it.

"This is going to be one of the most challenging tracks I think that we've played; the way that it's playing right now and the way it will continue to."

Irish Independent

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