Back on form and with a run of tournaments behind him that suggests he is close to being as competitively sharp as he can possibly be, McIlroy will relish the fact that the American media will be focusing most of their attention on the efforts of their own superstar Jordan Spieth. His stunning victory at the Open Championship just a few short weeks ago means Spieth enters this week with the US PGA Championship as the only major missing from a career slam.
In all, there have only ever been five players to achieve such a feat with Tiger Woods, in 2000, joining a list that includes Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, and Jack Nicklaus, so the stakes this week couldn’t be higher, not just for Spieth but also for the other man determined to join that elusive club first, Spieth’s closest rival McIlroy.
Rivalry is what makes all individual sports tick. A well-formed rivalry, complete with a little animus, becomes bigger than either party on their own so there will be nothing more fascinating than watching these two young foes — one from the US and one from Europe — contesting the next two major championships with each trying to deny the other Grand Slam glory.
And it helps when the rivalry delivers contrasts — the elegant and effortless power hitting of McIlroy versus the shot-making ability of Spieth; the mentally erratic McIlroy versus the mentally dominant Spieth.
So, what hope is there for a close battle this week?
McIlroy, a two-time Wells Fargo champion, simply loves the Quail Hollow course where he has also shot his lowest score as a professional, a course-record 11-under-par 61.
A modern player’s golf course, Quail Hollow plays to McIlroy’s natural game strengths in that you can take advantage of the course if you drive it a long way but over the past year there have been modifications to the course by Tom Fazio which have made the starting holes more challenging.
Gone is the rye grass, replaced instead by Bermuda grass which, much to McIlroy’s disliking, has the potential for the players to lose some control of the ball if the course gets really firm and fast. That said, McIlroy has spoken positively of the changes and will be hoping he now can take advantage of his improving form on a course that historically has rewarded his aggression.
Although McIlroy finished ahead of Spieth last week, Spieth’s advantage lies in the way he and his team diligently prepare for major championships. Just last month he spoke about how much they have achieved together in such a short space of time on the professional tour, but that does little justice to Spieth’s appetite as a competitor.
A perfect ambassador for the game, he often speaks about the fun of competition and the greater good of the game, but when Spieth actually slips into character on the golf course, he is cut-throat, concise, and relentless. He possesses no loose thoughts, only the heart and the focus. In conversation, he is philosophical; in competition, he is an assassin.
All this after a slip-up in the 2016 US Masters that threw his career so badly out of focus that most of us wondered if he’d ever win another Grand Slam title again. Last month’s Open Championship victory is a testament, more than anything, to his mental fortitude.
He wins because of his will to win.
It seems so simple, but in fact it isn’t. Playing with the right determination, which includes choosing the right options under great duress, is the hallmark on a great champion.
McIlroy, on the other hand, is the player who, when on form, makes the almost impossible look ridiculously easy. His swashbuckling style would grace any era in golf but more and more in recent years we have seen the flaws in his game ruthlessly exposed.
More “Team Rory” than “Team Spieth”, his determination to do things his own way — while admirable — may in fact be the greatest hindrance to him fully realising his full potential, but such is his strong stage presence and flair for the game that he still makes for compulsive viewing.
This week we will witness two master craftsmen at work. McIlroy and Spieth will view their canvas at Quail Hollow differently but that’s what makes this rivalry so fascinating. Spieth, the tactician, has more weapons in his arsenal. Statistically stronger than McIlroy — in key areas like birdies made and putting — he will hope for a fast start and then rely on sound judgement and unrelenting competitiveness to make the difference.
For his part, a motivated McIlroy is a dangerous player. Spieth has threatened his status and his improved form will encourage him to be bold on a course that he plays well, but he must go about his business diligently — particularly sticking to a good routine with his putting and controlling the spin on his wedge and short shots around the green.
In a game that traditionally doesn’t lend itself to rivalry, this one could be very special.