Rory McIlroy surges as Jordan Spieth's putting mojo deserts him in Abu Dhabi
American's struggles on the Abu Dhabi greens fuel rivals' belief that hot streak can't last
With Rory McIlroy in action for the first time this year, Abu Dhabi has been offering a fascinating foretaste of the shape of tournament golf for the coming season. And the indications are that it will contain a lot more than putting exhibitions from world No 1 Jordan Spieth.
Indeed, a dominant aspect of a weather-affected event has been the sight of Spieth struggling on greens where the grain seems to baffle him. "Dang it," was a frequent expression of his frustration, especially when taking 31 putts in yesterday's completed second round of 73 - his first round over par in 22, covering the last 126 days.
Still, he managed to complete a third-round 68 which saved him having to be at the course at 5am this morning. Claiming to have holed only one effort over 10 feet, he said afterwards: "I've no excuses. I just haven't made anything this week, but it can all come together tomorrow."
McIlroy carded a second-round 70 and went on to claim a share of the lead with four others on 10 under par when play was suspended once more after nine holes of his third round, this time due to fading light at the end of an overcrowded day. Which means he faces 27 holes today in pursuit of victory in the €2.7m event.
Andy Sullivan, Friday's overnight leader, had maintained that position until a crushing triple-bogey seven on the 456-yard ninth, where his drive was lost in a bush down the right.
In the space of 18 minutes yesterday morning, McIlroy went from five strokes off the lead and out of the top 10 to two strokes back of Sullivan and tied second. This was the reward for a stunning birdie, eagle finish to his second round.
Though he failed to repeat the "masterclass" which Spieth had so admired in an opening 66 on Thursday, he still played beautifully when carding three birdies in an outward 34. But he must have been seething at a careless three-putt bogey at the fifth, where his first putt careered eight feet past the pin.
Most impressive was his play of the 567-yard par-five 18th in early morning, when his confidence with a new driver was reflected in a 299-yard hit to the tightest part of a fairway with water threatening down the right-hand side. From there, a five-wood second shot of 268 yards lipped out for what would have been an albatross two.
Michael Hoey is tied 56th after a 73 and Darren Clarke is tied 62nd with 27 to play.
Meanwhile, McIlroy set off on the third round in the company of Sullivan and the self-absorbed American amateur, Bryson DeChambeau, who is expected to turn professional after a US Masters appearance in April. With a name like his, one imagines he was born to be in the public eye and the nature of his play seems certain to make him a significant attraction.
Almost predictably, Pádraig Harrington has interesting views on a 22-year-old who achieved one of golf's rare distinctions by winning the NCAA and US Amateur titles last year. He also demolished Ireland's Gavin Moynihan by 6 and 5 in the final singles of the Walker Cup at Royal Lytham last September.
The eccentric American is distinctive in many ways, wearing a modern variation of the iconic Ben Hogan pancake cap while maintaining a fascination with the cult instruction book The Golfing Machine.
The most interesting thing about DeChambeau, however, has been his pursuit of a repeatable, single-plane swing. To this end, he plays with irons and wedges that are all the same length, approximately that of a standard seven-iron, not unlike the Tiger Shark clubs from 30 years ago. So, does his upright action deliver the desired objective? Harrington is not convinced.
"He happened to be practising close to me on a range last year and I went over and had a go at all his clubs to see what they were like," said the winner of three Major championships. "You know, if somebody told me that that's the way it should be when you're five years of age, I'd believe it, no problem. But I was taught a different way."
He went on: "The idea of having all the clubs the same length as his seven iron is that he'll play them all with the same swing. But he changes it then for his woods, using a normal driver. So he has two swings; the concept doesn't work for every club.
"He's just a special talent, and if he used a normal set of clubs you'd find that he'd perform equally well. He's a very talented guy, he really is."
With power to spare - he was 23 yards outside McIlroy off the tee at the long eighth - he maintained touch with the lead despite a few wild drives in yesterday's third round. Incidentally, where the Irishman made birdie on the eighth, he had to settle for a par.
Meanwhile, Spieth's sparkling start to the season, with a record-equalling victory in Hawaii, had observers wondering if he could continue to maintain his remarkable success with the blade. The view among some of his professional rivals seems to be that he can't.
They see faultless putting as a transient gift which most players will experience for limited spells during the course of a career. On that basis, the belief is that it won't be long before McIlroy regains the world No 1 position, simply because of the superiority of his play overall.
Yet there have been notable exceptions among the game's great players regarding fortunes on the greens. One thinks of the outstanding putting which Jack Nicklaus maintained through a sparkling career. Likewise, Tiger Woods produced some amazing performances with the blade.
It must be conceded, however, that even with these icons, their putting never quite matched Spieth's extraordinary efforts last year. Though unquestionably impressive, theirs happened to be no more than a significant part of an impressive overall package.
Among notable exceptions was Bobby Locke, whose putting was unquestionably his greatest asset over a period of nine years which delivered four Open Championships between 1949 and 1957. Then there was Ben Crenshaw, whose silken putting stroke was definitely not matched by his game tee to green, which was, in fact, often decidedly wayward. This explains why his two Major victories were in the US Masters when Augusta National was effectively wide open, through the absence of rough.
Tom Watson had a short game to rival Spieth's during a highly productive 10-year period from 1975, when he won eight Major championships. It came to an abrupt end in the 1984 Open Championship at St Andrews where, by his own estimation, "a balky putter" forced him to settle for a share of second place behind Seve Ballesteros.
On the assumption that his problems on Abu Dhabi's greens will prove to be temporary, Spieth may continue to outshine even Nicklaus and Woods on the greens for some time to come, but history would suggest it highly unlikely, unless he happens to possess truly exceptional nerves.
And if down-times happen to arrive, he will have the comfort of a new $7m home in Dallas, formerly owned by Ryder Cup colleague Hunter Mahan. We're told that the house boasts a 12-car garage to the right of an Augusta National mural, an indoor basketball court, swimming pool, golf-simulator room, grill-room and wine-cellar.
All of which should not even dent his finances, given earnings of $53m in 2015.
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