Rory McIlroy knows exactly how sweet Jordan Spieth’s turkey will have tasted.
He has been there himself, on more than one occasion; magnificently replete with a full stomach but so hungrily anticipating more of the same in 2016. More titles, more majors, more plaudits as the game’s best.
Except, unless you are Tiger Woods circa 2002, it is rarely this straightforward. Take McIlroy’s example. He looked unbeatable at the end of 2012 and 2014 but in the season thereafter human fallibility applied the breaks. Whether it was a breakdown of the game (as in 2013) or a freak injury (as in 2015), McIlroy’s ambitions of the festive break before were not nearly fulfilled. Now it will be over to Master Spieth, the world No 1 and reigning Masters and US Open champion, to see if he can shake off the hangover.
McIlroy recognises the cool head of his young rival, but plainly believes it will require all of the Texan’s renowned temperament to deal with the pressure. Sitting down in the Facebook offices in Dublin in the days leading up to his Christmas break, McIlroy opened up on the difficulty in following a blockbuster with a comparable sequel.
“It will feel completely different for Jordan,” McIlroy said. “If you look at the stats at how those who have had a double-major season have performed the next year… well, it’s hard to back up. It just is. There’s so much expectation, so much attention and focus. And I think it is more self-inflicted pressure really as your expectations are so high.
“This time last year mine were through the roof coming off a great season, winning those back-to-back majors and although I started well I never felt I really got into my stride with the injuries and stuff.”
Perhaps more than any big-time sport, golf has a habit of ensuring there are lows to visit, no matter how long the succession of peaks. For McIlroy, of course, it came this year on that artificial pitch near his home in Bangor where he went over on his ankle. Before that moment in a kickabout with friends, McIlroy was bubbling, with three titles to his name, as well as two top 10s behind Spieth in the campaign’s opening pair of majors.
How quickly his aspirations were deflated, lying there with a ruptured tendon he feared would rule out the rest of the year.
As it happened, McIlroy was only to miss three tournaments – the Scottish Open and his defences at the Open and the WGC Bridgestone Invitational – and he was able to claw back some consolation by winning a third European Tour Order of Merit.
McIlroy took great heart from that season-ending win at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, where he held off an inspired Andy Sullivan down the stretch. “It was the first time since the injury that I got a bit of speed back in my swing, I was hitting it long and I finally was playing how I wanted to play again. There’d been progress but it just sort of all came together in Dubai and it makes me excited about next year.”
So McIlroy’s vision is restored and in more ways than the metaphorical. Of course, it was inevitable that his engagement to Erica Stoll would attract all the headlines in the last month and he is quite certain that such blessed stability in his home life will only help his game. Yet in terms of the nitty, gritty of his profession, his second operation of the year may be more resonant. In 1999, Woods underwent laser eye surgery and the next season won three majors. Could it have a similar effect on McIlroy?
“No pressure then!” McIlroy laughed. “Listen I’ve wanted to do this since I was 18, but I wanted to be in position that if anything did go wrong I’d still be OK. I’ve always struggled with my eyes, especially in the summer with hay fever, when you’re rubbing your eyes and sometimes things get under the contact lens and so it becomes blurry. But, I mean, it’s only been a week since I had it done and it’s amazing.
“My vision is so sharp. It has to help putting, help me read the lines on the greens, where there is definitely room for improvement. What the doctor said was that it might just be the same vision as you have with your contact lenses when you are far away but close up - 20, 30 metres - is when people notice the sharpness.”
Nowhere might this aid more than at Augusta, with its revered and notorious putting surfaces. The narrative will revolve around ‘the new big three’ with the Australian Jason Day alongside Spieth and McIlroy on the billboards. But only one will have history in his sights.
McIlroy will return to the Masters looking to complete the career grand slam and inevitably this will take first point on the list of objectives which he traditionally, and by now famously, writes down on his boarding pass when he heads to Dubai for his pre-season practice in the first week of January. He has already stated one aim is to regain the world No 1 tag by the time of the year’s first major, and in truth all of his roads will lead to Georgia.
“A lot of the goals will be of a similar nature to the ones I set out last year. Obviously Augusta is important and I will be playing two extra events leading up to it,” McIlroy said. “I want to get in a full rhythm where it doesn’t feel like the start of the season, but feel like I’m ‘played in’.
“There have been times there where I’ve thought I’ve been playing well, but only making par and then you looked up and Jordan Spieth is 12-under for two days. I’m not saying I was undercooked this year, but I definitely won’t be next year. I’m playing [the Northern Trust Open at] Riviera for the first time and with the WGC Matchplay moving dates, Augusta will be my eighth event.”
Thereafter, the campaign will zoom by, with the three remaining majors taking place within seven weeks of each other. The reason for that is that golf’s re-inclusion in the Olympics and although McIlroy recently sounded decidedly lukewarm when discussing where Rio will fall on his priority list, he is merely summing up the somewhat mixed and confused mood on the professional range.
“I never thought I’d have the chance to be an Olympic athlete,” he said. “It will be a great experience, going down to Rio and being a part of it, but it’s not like with the other athletes where we’ll get the chance to go enjoy the three weeks. We’re in and out in a week.
“And for most of the athletes it’s a culmination of four years of really hard work. For us it’s after the major season. People compare it to tennis, and I’m sure if golf is in the Games for a while I think it will become a bigger event in our sport as well. I just think it needs time to evolve.
“Yet it would be an incredible thrill for a golfer to win a gold for their country.”
Just one more ambition for McIlroy to carry into 2016. Spieth should be warned because McIlroy just loves an evenly-numbered year.
In a remarkable pledge of support, Rory McIlroy is committed to raising the Irish Open to unprecedented levels as a truly significant world event. It's a vision inspired by stirring images painted by his father of trips south from Holywood 30 years ago to see Seve Ballesteros in action.
The emergence of Jordan Spieth, the Major breakthrough by Jason Day, and Rory McIlroy's season of joy and tears produced a compelling narrative throughout the golf season on both sides of the Atlantic. This is the way the Year of the New Big 3 unfolded: