There’s only one thing that Jordan Spieth fears more that Quail Hollow’s cloying bermuda rough and rock hard greens and that’s Rory McIlroy in full flow.
Facing a rain-softened track that measures 7,600 yards from the tips, the Open champion may be giving up as much as 30 yards off the tee to McIlroy in a US PGA Championship that could go down in history should he win it and become the youngest to win the career Grand Slam.
McIlroy’s record of two wins and four top tens in seven appearances makes him the betting favourite but having gone three years without a major win, he’s at a distinct disadvantage to Spieth, who captured his third major in such dramatic fashion at Royal Birkdale little more than a fortnight ago.
McIlroy hailed Spieth’s mental strength and resilience in his press conference on Monday.
But Spieth repaid the compliment yesterday, describing the Holywood star as “one to fear” should he get the bit between his teeth.
“Rory is a guy who is very difficult if you come into a one-on-one type situation, no matter where it is, and especially in majors because he’s not afraid to hit the shot,” Spieth said.
“He plays so aggressively, and that’s what you have to do to win.
“He’s proven that. I mean, he won this tournament by eight shots. Obviously, that doesn’t come from playing too safe.
“Even when he had the lead, he kept his foot on the gas pedal. He’s done that for dozens of worldwide victories.
“He is one to fear in that position because of what he’s capable of doing and how he’s going to do it.”
With world No 1 Dustin Johnson, former Wells Fargo winner Rickie Fowler, recent WGC-Bridgestone Invitational winner Hideki Matsuyama, US Open champion Brooks Koepka, Irish Open champion Jon Rahm and Quail Hollow specialist Phil Mickelson all capable of winning here, there are more threats than McIlroy to Spieth’s career Grand Slam bid.
Remarkably, the 24-year old Texan deflected the inevitable questions about the “slam” with consummate ease, insisting he doesn’t feel under pressure to pull it off this week “Expectations, I really don’t feel any,” he said. “This is a chance to complete the career Grand Slam; I’m here, so I’m going to go ahead and try.
“But I believe I’m going to have plenty of chances, and I’m young enough to believe in my abilities that it will happen at some point.
“Do I have to be the youngest? No, I don’t feel that kind of pressure. Would it be really cool? Absolutely… Expectations, I wouldn’t even really put it on the radar.”
There will be pressure for Spieth if he is in contention but having already captured a major this season, he explained that he has not felt as relaxed coming into a major since he won the US Open at Chambers Bay just a few months after denying McIlroy his chance of completing the career Grand Slam the first time of asking in the 2015 Masters.
“It was only two weeks ago that I was able to get the third leg, and that’s so fresh in my mind,” he said. “I’m so happy about that that I can’t add pressure to this week. I’m free-rolling. And it feels good.”
Spieth conceded that the pressure will ramp up if he’s in the mix on the back nine on Sunday but when it comes to his rivalry with McIlroy, it’s not so much the daunting prospect of trying to tame the Ulsterman in full flow but “what’s it going to be like for the next 20, 25 years.”
Spieth knows it’s not a two horse race these days but an ensemble production, name-checking Rahm and Matsuyama as just two of six or eight young guns “all pushing each other to get better.”
He pointed to the deep Bermuda rough and firm greens as a major factor this week.
“You have to have unbelievable distance control out here, once you’re in the fairway, to get the ball close to these pins,” said Spieth, who is ranked second only to Dustin Johnson when it comes to hitting iron shots close this year.
“So it’s going to be such a challenge to have close birdie putts out here from the looks of it.
“This is going to be one of the most challenging tracks I think that we’ve played; the way that it’s playing right now and the way it will continue to.”
Those who believe he lacks the length to challenge McIlroy this week may remember that he was second to Jason Day on a 7,501 yard Whistling Straits in 2015. Yes, he’s losing 20 yards of run due to the soft fairways, but his superior iron play and that normally deadly putting stroke will be two major assets this week.
McIlroy is the leading Irish contender on paper with Graeme McDowell at a low ebb and struggling to keep pace with the big guns on courses that force him to hit hybrids and long irons on many holes.
Harrington found the course a massive challenge in practice but hopes his short game will give him a major advantage over the field.
As for Lowry, he found the greens so firm he’s put in an extra wedge and a rescue club and taken out his five-wood and three-iron. “It is just that the greens are so firm and there is no point going into them with a three-iron and I feel that by having an extra wedge, I will be better off because you will have a lot more shots between 90 and 140 yards than you do between 220 and 250,” Lowry said.
Driving is the key and given his recent struggles, Lowry is hoping he will be firing on all cylinders from the tee and sharper around the greens.
“You are going to have to drive it in the fairway this week as in this rough you don’t know what sort of shot you are going to get coming out of it,” Lowry said.
Struggling for form after two missed cuts in a row, he’s almost treating this week as the start of a new season. “I just had to take stock and realise how lucky I am to be doing what I am doing,” he said of his reaction to his recent disappointments.
“How my game isn’t actually that bad and how lucky I am that I get to do what I do for a living and that I can play week in and week out in the biggest events in the world.”
(USA unless stated, all times Irish)
(a) denotes amateurs:
Starting at hole 1:
Rich Berberian Jr, Grayson Murray, Peter Uihlein 12.30pm: Adam Rainaud, Tony Finau, Fabrizio Zanotti (Par) 12.40pm: Young-Han Song (Kor), Dave McNabb, Charles Howell III 12.50pm: Wesley Bryan, Sung Kang (Kor), Dylan Frittelli (Rsa) 2pm: Francesco Molinari (It), William McGirt, Jim Herman 2.10pm: Gary Woodland, Andy Sullivan (Eng), Kyle Stanley 2.20pm: Vijay Singh (Fij), Rich Beem, John Daly 2.30pm: Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa), Danny Willett (Eng), JB Holmes 2.40pm: Thomas Pieters (Bel), Xander Schauffele, Rodney Pampling (Aus) 2.50pm: Thorbjorn Olesen (Den), Brendan Steele, Hudson Swafford 3pm: Bernd Wiesberger (Aut), Cameron Smith (Aus), Brandon Stone (Rsa) 3.10pm: Greg Gregory, KT Kim (Kor), James Hahn 3.20pm: Richard Sterne (Rsa), Ryan Vermeer, Chris Stroud 5.35pm: Matt Dobyns, Hideto Tanihara (Jpn), Lucas Glover 5.45pm: Jason Kokrak, Satoshi Kodaira (Jpn), Mike Small 5.55pm: Branden Grace (Rsa), Pat Perez, Thomas Bjorn (Den) 6.05pm: Adam Scott (Aus), Luke Donald (Eng), Webb Simpson 6.15pm: Billy Horschel, Matthew Fitzpatrick (Eng), Si Woo Kim (Kor) 6.25pm: Phil Mickelson, Jason Dufner, Jimmy Walker 6.35pm: Rory McIlroy (NIrl)
, Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm (Spa) 6.45pm: Matt Kuchar, Chris Kirk, Justin Rose (Eng) 6.55pm: Daniel Berger, Jim Furyk, Kevin Kisner 7.05pm: Ross Fisher (Eng), Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Spa), Ryan Moore 7.15pm: Bryson DeChambeau, Jordan Smith (Eng), Jhonattan Vegas (Ven) 7.25pm: Alex Beach, Kevin Na, Sean O’Hair 7.35pm: Chris Moody (Eng), Jamie Lovemark, Luke List
Starting at hole 10:
Shane Lowry (Irl)
, Stuart Deane, Pablo Larrazabal (Spa) 12.35pm: Scott Hebert, Alex Noren (Swe), Russell Knox (Sco) 12.45pm: Ernie Els (Rsa), Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Ian Poulter (Eng) 12.55pm: Daniel Summerhays, Robert Streb, Chris Wood (Eng) 1.05pm: Tommy Fleetwood (Eng), Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed 1.15pm: Bubba Watson, Charl Schwartzel (Rsa), Paul Casey (Eng) 1.25pm: Brooks Koepka, Sergio Garcia (Spa), Jordan Spieth 1.35pm: Dustin Johnson, Jason Day (Aus), Henrik Stenson (Swe) 1.45pm: Padraig Harrington (Irl)
, Keegan Bradley, Davis Love III 1.55pm: Zach Johnson, Lee Westwood (Eng), Charley Hoffman 2.05pm: David Lingmerth (Swe), Scott Brown, Nicolas Colsaerts (Bel) 2.15pm: Scott Hend (Aus), Kenny Pigman, Andrew Johnston (Eng) 2.25pm: Brian Smock, Patrick Rodgers, Kelly Kraft 5.30pm: David Muttitt, Bud Cauley, Graham DeLaet (Can) 5.40pm: Rod Perry, Emiliano Grillo (Arg), Yuta Ikeda (Jpn) 5.50pm: Joost Luiten (Ned), Paul Claxton, Russell Henley 6pm: Patrick Cantlay, Thongchai Jaidee (Tha), Soren Kjeldsen (Den) 6.10pm: YE Yang (Kor), Shaun Micheel, Omar Uresti 6.20pm: Danny Lee (Nzl), Anirban Lahiri (Ind), Marc Leishman (Aus) 6.30pm: Byeong-Hun An (Kor), Kevin Chappell, Mackenzie Hughes (Can) 6.40pm: Steve Stricker, Brian Harman, Jonas Blixt (Swe) 6.50pm: Tyrrell Hatton (Eng), Adam Hadwin (Can), DA Points 7pm: Bill Haas, Graeme McDowell (NIrl)
, Martin Laird (Sco) 7.10pm: Jeunghun Wang (Kor), Alexander Levy (Fra), Jamie Broce 7.20pm: JJ Wood, Ryan Fox (Nzl), Haotong Li (Chn) 7.30pm: Cody Gribble, Jaysen Hansen, Chez Reavie
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