Jordan Spieth has the type of dominant form around Augusta that would have had many fancied players writing off their chances after yesterday’s opening round, writes John McHenry
It started out as the day Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, two of the best players in the world, would renew their growing rivalry by separating themselves from the chasing pack during the second round of the US Masters.
But Augusta National was having none of it.
It was still less than 24 hours since Spieth stole the opening show with a masterly combination of shotmaking skills, authoritative putting and absolute patience, that would have graced any stage, in any Masters era.
With a first, two seconds and an 11th place finish, which includes blowing a five-stroke lead by dropping six strokes in three back-nine holes during the final round of the 2016 Masters, three-time major champion Spieth has the type of dominant form around Augusta that would have had many fancied players writing off their chances after yesterday’s opening round.
So, what makes Spieth so good? He’s not overly long — his club-head speed when using his driver is about 10 miles slower than the very fastest swings on tour. Nor is he anywhere near the most accurate, but his smooth reliable swing lacks any wasted motion, which by and large enables him to keep the ball out of trouble off the tee and hit his irons close to the pins.
On the greens, he is a very good putter, and sometimes a brilliant one, but one of his greatest gifts is he’s simply really good at everything.
Spieth’s tournament demeanour is also one of his greatest defining characteristics. When he doesn’t have his best stuff — like his opening holes yesterday, where he dropped three shots to par, he still finds a way to stay in the hunt.
Full of self-confidence, he expects to win once he gets near the top of the leaderboard, and he has an uncanny knack for being at his best in the biggest moments and is extremely tough to beat — as he demonstrated when winning the Open Championship last year.
For his part, Rory McIlroy, Spieth’s greatest rival in the modern game, has got that knack of winning when the opportunity presents itself, like it did a couple of weeks ago, in the Arnold Palmer Invitational. But McIlroy’s game is less refined. Where Spieth regularly talks about “Team Spieth” McIlroy is very much determined to control every aspect of his own destiny.
Where Spieth seems endlessly prepared, fully aware of all of the possibilities and confident in his plan, McIlroy’s more carefree approach is designed to suit his more natural athleticism and talent.
On form and putting well, few can live with McIlroy in the modern game, but Spieth can, especially down the closing stretch of a major championship. And believe you me there is nothing more that Spieth would like to do this week than deny Rory his slam before he himself gets the chance to win one at the PGA Championship later in the year.
Yesterday would have been a very challenging day for both players and they would have been thrilled to escape from it still very much in contention to win this weekend, but the manner they go about seeking out that victory will vary significantly.
For Spieth, who regularly goes around Augusta, making six to seven birdies per round, his priority this weekend will focus exclusively on his driving accuracy, because even with his length most of the par 5s on the course are in range. And while he might cede a slight advantage to McIlroy in this department, Spieth regularly finishes first on the PGA Tour in percentage of birdie or better on par 4s, second on par 3s and first in proximity on approaches to greens from the rough.
This means that in an overall context the advantage this weekend still lies very much with Spieth. Around Augusta he has also demonstrated time and again, in just five short years, that innate understanding of where and where not to miss with his approach shots.
Both players are equally good playing off the differently sloped lies you find all over Augusta — lies like the fairway approach shot to the second hole, that in many cases are unnatural for your body. And while McIlroy’s putting has improved immeasurably since he has started working with Brad Faxon, it remains to be seen if he can generate the necessary level of imagination he will require to put himself in a winning position come Sunday evening. Spieth is already proven in that category.
Knowing all of this, of course, is an advantage to McIlroy this weekend, because with Spieth and other high-profile players on his tail he cannot afford to rest. A focused McIlroy is a very dangerous player and given his belief in his ability to bring his best game to the table when in contention, these next 36 holes may yet be the longest but perhaps the most rewarding of his entire career.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved