Saturday 24 February 2018

Rory McIlroy plays down Spieth rivalry as golf world jumps gun

Rory McIlroy speaking at Sawgrass yesterday
Rory McIlroy speaking at Sawgrass yesterday
Rory McIlroy autographs a ball for a young fan at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium course in Florida yesterday
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Does professional golf really need a new Big Two rivalry?

Judging by the clamour to elevate the status of Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth to the level of the epic Jack Nicklaus v Arnold Palmer battles of the past, this is exactly what the sport requires.

There is an argument that it has already happened by virtue of McIlroy and Spieth occupying the World No 1 and No 2 positions respectively.

But hey, let's give these guys some breathing space. A genuine 'Big Two' construct arises in a natural manner.

Ideally, the protagonists have to bring some heat and dislike, or at least an aloofness, to their 'relationship.'

They also have to develop some history between them, a record of head-to-head meetings with ebb and flow on both sides at various times.

There is no need to artificially thrust any added pressure on their young shoulders.

McIlroy certainly seems to agree. Asked at yesterday's press conference if the "rivalry" got his competitive juices flowing, he said: "Not really because last year it was Rickie, this year it's Jordan, might be someone else, could have been Tiger. There have been four or five rivalries over the past year. It doesn't really do anything for me."

Credit to McIlroy for not playing to the gallery or the expectations of media and officialdom.

Can't we give them both some time to just play and let any 'rivalry' develop of its own accord?

McIlroy has just turned 26, Spieth is only 21. Yes, the American has burst on the scene in remarkable fashion to claim his Masters jacket and the Valspar Championship recently.

And yes, McIlroy has knocked off four Majors in the last four years. Terrific. Great.


Both of these young men will hopefully be around for a long time to come, so what's the rush to pit them against each other like fighting cocks?

It might have been just a tad more subtle if the PGA Tour had separated McIlroy and Spieth instead of jamming them together into the opening two rounds of The Players Championship at Sawgrass today.

Jason Day is the 'gooseberry' in the trio while all eyes and the TV cameras will be trained on the World No 1 and No 2, but that's showbiz, and it's all about the ratings.

A Sunday finale scenario in which the two of them battle down the stretch with the dangerous 17th to play at Sawgrass would be thrilling.

It may happen, but McIlroy and Spieth have each had a few tough weeks, albeit pretty memorable weeks.

They are not robots. Indeed, it was kind of pleasing to see Spieth lose his cool somewhat against Lee Westwood in the WGC-Cadillac Match Play on Saturday.

After an errant tee shot, Spieth swung his driver back in frustration. The move was so sudden and unexpected that Westwood flinched and pulled away.

He was in no danger, but the Englishman's instinctive reaction spoke louder than words.

You don't do that on a tee box at any level - at least, you shouldn't.

But the moment showed that Spieth is not perfect. Neither is McIlroy. He can get the shoulders slumping with the best of them when the game is off-key.

They might have profited by being kept apart in the draw for the opening 36 holes, and then fire up the booster jets on Saturday and Sunday.

In fact, the pairing could work against the dynamic duo. If they are focused on each other, there are plenty of hungry fighters out there who can take advantage.

Justin Rose, Paul Casey, Henrik Stenson have the credentials to make a strong European bid for glory, as does holder Martin Kaymer, although no Players champion has ever made a successful defence.

As for the Americans, only four of the last 12 stagings of The Players have been won by a home player.

Spieth represents their best chance this year, although last year's runner-up Jim Furyk, is in form, as he showed when pushing McIlroy very hard in Sunday's Match Play semi-final.

Other USA players to fancy their chances include Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan and Phil Mickelson.

Padraig Harrington would love to get into the mix, as would Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry, who makes his Sawgrass debut.

Darren Clarke is priced at 1000/1 against and that reflects the market view on his prospects.

And what of the Tiger, who has much to ponder?

He goes into the tournament feeling hurt and vulnerable after the end of his three-year relationship with girlfriend Lindsey Vonn.

"Obviously it (the break-up) does affect me. It is tough. There's no doubt. I'm not going to lie about that. It is tough," said Woods.

The Players Championship, Live Sky Sports 4, 6.00pm

AfraAsia Bank Mauritius Open, Live, Sky Sports 4, 7.30am, 11.00

Irish Independent

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