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Jordan Spieth takes sure aim at bullseye on Rory's back

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Ireland's Rory McIlroy, right, and his caddy JP Fitzgerald shelter under an umbrella during the first round of the Australian Open. AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

Ireland's Rory McIlroy, right, and his caddy JP Fitzgerald shelter under an umbrella during the first round of the Australian Open. AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

AP

Ireland's Rory McIlroy, right, and his caddy JP Fitzgerald shelter under an umbrella during the first round of the Australian Open. AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

THE relentless march of time is apparent in the words of Jordan Spieth as the 21-year-old Texan identifies Rory McIlroy as the role model for himself and other members of "the next generation" clambering to the top in world golf.

McIlroy enjoys iconic status among the fresh-faced kids on the professional fairways. At age 25, he wears the bullseye on his back that for more than 10 years was borne by Tiger Woods.

Spieth is remarkably mature, cogent and confident for his tender years. He talks the way he plays, with calm assurance and authority. So when the American describes McIlroy as the major motivating force in his career, these are not the words of some star-struck youngster.

"I cannot be satisfied with where I am right now (in the game)," said Spieth, ranked 13 places behind No 1 McIlroy on the world ladder.

"To see what Rory's done, with four Majors already and double-digit worldwide victories, he's the one that has set the bar for us and for those in the next generation - the up-and-comers around the world. He's the guy we're chasing. In order to beat Rory, we're going to have to work harder than him. That extremely difficult, as he works so very hard. Yet that's the goal, the level we must aspire to."

Spieth has achieved a great deal in just two seasons as a professional.

He became the first teenager in 82 years to win on the US Tour in 2013, first forcing his way into a playoff at the John Deere Classic by holing from a greenside bunker at the 72nd before clinching victory over David Hearn and Zach Johnson in extra time.

Chosen by Fred Couples to play on the 2013 US Presidents Cup team, he then was named PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. Spieth hasn't won in 2014 but an impressive runner-up finish behind Bubba Watson at The Masters and a creditable Ryder Cup debut at Gleneagles, where he forged a precocious partnership with Patrick Reed, stand out among a string of impressive performances.

He registered his ninth top-10 of the year last Sunday in a tie for third at Japan's Dunlop Phoenix, just one outside a playoff won by Hideki Matsuyama, suggesting Spieth might break his duck either at the Emirates Australian Open in Sydney or his final event, next week's Hero World Challenge presented by Tiger Woods at Isleworth in Orlando.

"It stings that I haven't won this year," admitted Spieth, who made his intentions plain at The Australian Golf Club by taking the lead with a four-under par 67 in yesterday's first round, two better than defending champion McIlroy, who grappled as much with jet lag as the cold blustery conditions.

PROMINENT

As local hero Adam Scott faltered with an opening 74, Spieth appeared capable of stepping between McIlroy and a place alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in history as the only foreign players to win back-to-back at the Aussie Open.

The young American also is expected to figure prominently among those trying to stymie McIlroy's bid to complete his career Grand Slam at Augusta next April.

Spieth cannot match the prodigious length of McIlroy, while his upbringing in the high-winds of Texas has gifted him with a low, controlled ball-flight, against the sky-high trajectory which lends the Ulsterman considerable advantage into the greens at Augusta.

Yet a potent combination of moxy and strategic nous helped propel Spieth into a tie for the lead with Watson through 54 holes at his first Masters. Then he led by two strokes after seven on Sunday before slipping back into a share of second with Sweden's Jonas Blixt.

Watson may have donned the Green Jacket for the second time in three years but Spieth established himself that afternoon as a serious obstacle going forward to anyone with Masters-winning ambitions.

Though overhauled down the stretch by Graeme McDowell on Ryder Cup Sunday after a barnstorming start to the opening singles match, Spieth revelled in the adrenaline-rich atmosphere of the Ryder Cup.

He'd imagined it impossible to find a more pressured situation than playing in the final group on Sunday at Augusta but the Ryder Cup took it to an entirely new level … and Spieth was delighted once again "to play some great golf" under the gun.

"That's what we play for," he enthused. "That's what we dream about. That's what we live for, playing under those circumstances, feeling the adrenaline rush and seeing how you perform. I was very excited about that and look forward to being in that position again."

Spieth and Reed, 24, French duo Victor Dubuisson, both also 24, and Matsuyama, 22, are prominent in the pack of hungry young wolves snapping at McIlroy's heels. The gifted Ulsterman has become both the hunter and hunted.

Irish Independent