Friday 25 May 2018

Tommy Conlon: McIlroy now in showdown with Spieth to become singular genius of golf

Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy
Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy
Jordan Spieth. Photo: PA

Tommy Conlon

Curiosity would have drawn a lot of Rory McIlroy watchers to their television screens last Thursday to see how he was faring with his new caddie after JP Fitzgerald had been suddenly jilted less than a week before.

Theirs had been a famously loyal relationship for the previous nine years. It had been highly successful too, and so bountifully lucrative that the bag carrier had also become a multi-millionaire.

On Wednesday, McIlroy confirmed that he and Fitzgerald had parted ways. The next day he teed it up for the WGC Championship in Ohio with his best friend, the Belfast businessman Harry Diamond, shouldering the tools.

But what promised to be the main story of the day became something of a sub-plot because of the company McIlroy was keeping beside Diamond. His playing partners at the Firestone Country Club were newly-crowned Open champion Jordan Spieth and the Australian former world No. 1 Jason Day.

When McIlroy officially became the game's next superstar and the heir apparent to Tiger Woods in 2011, Spieth was playing college golf at the University of Texas. He didn't turn pro until December 2012. Two weeks ago Spieth won at Birkdale to capture his third Major, four days before his 24th birthday.

When McIlroy won his fourth Major, the US PGA in 2014, he was seen as the one realistic challenger to Jack Nicklaus's Mount Rushmore record of 18 Majors. He hasn't won one since and now he is vying with Spieth not just for all-time historical status, but even to be the undisputed best of his generation. McIlroy, whisper it, has been deemed a bit passé. He has found himself in Spieth's shadow over the last two years. It is the American who currently carries the Woodsian aura, the maker of miracle shots under the most stressful competitive conditions.

Both of them finished on Thursday with a three-under 67. McIlroy played well. He didn't appear to spend much time at all talking to Diamond. For the most part he hit the ball, handed the club back to his caddie and kept walking.

One of the Ulsterman's many appealing features is his candour when discussing whatever issue has arisen in his personal or professional life. McIlroy generally will face the music and answer the questions. He consistently comes across as a well-adjusted if error-prone young man, not unlike most fellas in their immature 20s.

The difference being, obviously, that McIlroy is a very rich and very famous 28-year-old and that this is a highly abnormal environment in which to live. The history of sport and entertainment is littered with stellar talents whose personalities were warped out of shape by these conditions. They couldn't cope; it brought out the worst in them. McIlroy seems to have the personal discipline, self-awareness and emotional intelligence to keep himself grounded. By all accounts he remains affable and courteous, despite the lack of privacy, despite all the temptations to indulge his ego as much as he wants.

Many of the game's insiders believe that his split from Fitzgerald was long overdue. But, if McIlroy had let his heart rule his head when it came to an old friend, then it is very much to his credit that he did. Maybe the writing was on the wall, but he wasn't going to walk away easily from someone with whom he'd shared so many wonderful times. At his press conference on Wednesday he explained an awkward situation with impressive sensitivity.

And on Thursday, observed Ewen Murray on Sky Sports, he played "almost like there's a weight off his shoulders. Such a close friend of JP, (it was) a very difficult thing to do and it would have hurt McIlroy to do that."

But the change of caddie didn't change the reality that he was now face-to-face with the other singular genius of golf, the one player capable of dominating the game as he was supposed to in the post-Tiger era. McIlroy had a ringside view of Spieth's wondrous talent. And it must have been quite the eye-opener for Diamond too as he watched while Spieth interacted with his bagman, Michael Greller, for all the world like buddies rather than colleagues.

On the fifth hole Spieth nailed one of his trademark long-distance putts. On the sixth he did it again, only better, with a monster from 52 feet. It was chilling in its execution, and almost spooky in its inevitability once the ball started rolling. And this was happening right under McIlroy's nose.

Then on the eighth came a shot that was more Harry Houdini than Harry Vardon. Spieth's ball was under a tree, well off the fairway, and blocked by trees ahead too. There didn't seem to be an exit, either high or low. But he spotted a tiny aperture through the branches, a window about three feet square - and he went for it.

"I'm gonna try something stupid here," he declared to Greller, then duly pulled it off. The ball materialised out of the trees, through the air and bounced onto the green. Player and caddie exchanged smiles and fist bumps like happy schoolboys. It looked like the sort of mutual moment of joy that had gone missing from the McIlroy/Fitzgerald partnership.

In any event, he was content afterwards with his first round without his old mucker. "It's the start I guess of the next chapter in my career," he said. But whoever ends up on McIlroy's bag, Jordan Spieth won't be too far away either.

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