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Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy: Golf’s new rivalry?

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When Jordan Spieth lost in a playoff last week at the Shell Houston Open–possibly in part due to an ill-timed camera shutter on the first extra hole–it appeared the public had been robbed of the most appealing story from the event before the year’s first major.

Oddly, though, Spieth’s loss was the Masters’ gain.

If the 21-year-old had been victorious in Houston, he would have moved to No. 2 in the world a week before the big event at Augusta. Instead, Spieth placed runner-up and put his energy into a dominant performance at the Masters, an otherworldly victorious showing that allowed him to storm into that No. 2 spot with a force of youthful promise that we haven’t seen so powerful, well, since Rory McIlroy four years ago.

And speaking of Rory, he’s No. 1 and now Spieth’s No. 2. For the first time in McIlroy’s place at the top, he has a younger counterpart one spot behind him.

Rory and Jordan. No. 1 and No. 2. A combined 46 years of age and approximately a billion seasons between them before we should anticipate decline courtesy of Father Time. Are we being handed golf’s new rivalry for the foreseeable future?

It’s a tantalizing vision after the week that just transpired at Augusta. Spieth shook off a disappointing final round last year at Augusta, returning in 2015 to the tune of 18-under, absolutely obliterating a course that had not yielded a 72-hole total better than 10-under since 2011.

On a layout that has long been cast as a bomber’s paradise, he dominated the field without impressive power. Spieth, in fact, ranked 44th in driving distance among the 55 weekend competitors!

And this performance only reinforced a recent trend, as the 21-year-old entered the event coming off finishes of first, second and tied for second, not to mention his two other victories late in the 2014 season.

As for McIlroy, his week wasn’t as impressive, but didn’t exactly make us question his talent. After faltering to at least one big round in every Masters since 2011, the Northern Irishman finally broke the curse, posting a 71-71-68-66 finishing in solo fourth and six shots short of the Career Grand Slam.

Those numbers don’t do his work justice either.

The 25-year-old was 3-over through 27 holes of the tournament and below the projected cut line, and summoned all of his power to produce a final 45 holes that he played in 15-under. In a way, it was reminiscent of what Tiger Woods did in 2007 at Augusta when he briefly flirted with the cutline only to storm back to second place by the end.

In any case, Spieth and McIlroy performed at a high level, and with both now major championship winners in their earlier 20s, it seems based off these recent events that the two are guaranteed to dominate the sport together and fight vigorously for that top post.

But let’s not be premature here.

Spieth’s week at Augusta was as magnificent as his score suggests, and in a way it is actually underrated. His four-stroke triumph appears in the record books as a worthy but less than dominant performance. That’s kind of misleading, considering Spieth did this wire-to-wire, which only adds to the difficulty, and considering this aspect of his four-shot 54 hole lead:

But whatever Spieth says, his month of brilliance has not been his norm, and will likely be an extended peak to his usual play. He could keep up his series of wins and runner-ups for another week or two, but after that he’s likely to revert closer to his (highly enviable) average in the short term. It’s easy to anoint during a player’s peak, less simple to do so when time has passed and the player has regressed to his norm.

There’s also the harrowing issue of length off the tee. As I noted, Spieth pummeled Augusta without using much driving power, instead relying more on an all-around effort that was most potent in his putter. To an extent this is Spieth’s norm. For the past two seasons, he was remarkably average in driving distance on the PGA Tour finishing 80th of 180 in the category in 2013 and 89th of 177 in 2014.

Spieth has made remarkable improvement in club head speed in 2015 and that has shot him up the list to 55th, and his place among the above-average lot in power may be his true spot. Even if that’s the case, Spieth is nowhere near McIlroy’s top five rate in power, and that portends trouble.

Rory certainly has his flaws, his putting can be suspect and his accuracy off the tee can sometimes go awry, but those are defects that can be mitigated through extensive practice. A lack of elite power, though, is unfixable. And barring another pair of significant jumps in club head speed, Spieth will be forever saddled with this disadvantage.

McIlroy, then, will always have the upper hand when it comes to the tools to dominate and possess more leeway to employ flaws while retaining top-of-the-world status. That’s the sizable advantage long hitters profit from.

So maybe there are some reasons to cool off on an incoming Spieth-McIlroy rivalry hype, but that doesn’t mean I believe it won’t come to fruition.

A golfer doesn’t have to be a power hitter to challenge for the top spot; it’s just unlikely, not unprecedented. In fact, Luke Donald, a far shorter hitter than Spieth, kept his reign as the game’s best player for basically a full year. While Spieth’s recent play is probable to be classified as a peak, there’s no reason to believe he won’t reach more peaks in the future or that his average weekly performance won’t improve as he continues to gain experience on the professional circuit.

Spieth also appears to have the confidence and mental acumen to bulldoze any perceived disadvantages.

And how do we even classify rivalry in golf anyway? The distance issue may just be a red herring, as some have classified Woods-Mickelson a true rivalry despite its clear lack of near-equals.

The idea of a Spieth-McIlroy battle seems a foregone conclusion in the afterglow of this year’s Masters.

But let’s hold off for a bit on a definitive answer. Maybe give some time to view subsequent performances rather than handing over full control to recency bias.

I’m optimistic that we will see a robust rivalry between these two young superstars in the time to come, I’m just not willing to stamp it into certainty yet.

Whatever the case, this is an exciting time in golf. Let’s not ruin it by rushing into conclusions.

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Kevin's fascination with the game goes back as long as he can remember. He has written about the sport on the junior, college and professional levels and hopes to cover its proceedings in some capacity for as long as possible. His main area of expertise is the PGA Tour, which is his primary focus for GolfWRX. Kevin is currently a student at Northwestern University, but he will be out into the workforce soon enough. You can find his golf tidbits and other sports-related babble on Twitter @KevinCasey19. GolfWRX Writer of the Month: September 2014

18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. JordanJordanJordan

    Apr 15, 2015 at 3:17 am

    A good story for the near future. A nice way to hype us any Europe VS USA stories. The US needed this win!

  2. brian

    Apr 13, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    Way to soon to call it a rivalry.

    • Bobby

      Apr 14, 2015 at 11:28 pm

      Spieth is the real deal. Rory barely showed up this weekend. Not only that, Spieth is number 2 in the world. It’s a rivalry.

  3. bunty

    Apr 13, 2015 at 9:25 am

    Wont be much of a contest in hair growing in a few years time

    rory>spieth

  4. Jonny B

    Apr 13, 2015 at 9:16 am

    The “rivalry” won’t be created by the two players, it will be created by the media. It’s articles like these, and quips like the one from Jim Nance at the close of coverage yesterday that create them. I think the players (at least Rory and Spieth) have no interest in rivalries, they just try to be every single person they play against, not a specific one. So their rivals are actually all of their competitors, which makes any rivalry moot.

    Personally, I’d like to see some more trash talking and rivalry on the tour. It would have been refreshing to see Spieth take some digs at others after yesterday’s win, or even make some cocky remarks in general. I think that is missing from golf vs. other sports. Granted, it’s a gentleman’s game. But the humility and the political correctness of every winner week in and week out is why the viewership isn’t growing. People who don’t golf aren’t interested in watching it because it’s not entertaining. I don’t play football, or baseball, or basketball – but I watch because it is entertaining. There are plenty of heroes and villains in those sports, and true rivalries fueled by hatred of other teams and players. You just don’t have that in golf.

    Rory blasted Tiger yesterday by 7 strokes – wouldn’t it have been fun to hear him take some shots at Tiger’s “hurt hand” or something? Or when asked to comment on Jordan’s victory he would have said something like “come talk to me when he has 4 majors” or something like that.

    Wouldn’t it have been great if Jordan would have made some “Tiger who?” or “Rory who?” comment after a record win?

    • Fred

      Apr 13, 2015 at 2:55 pm

      That’s precisely the problem with many of the other sports. Too much drama. Why can’t you just enjoy the game and the excellence displayed by these great golfers? The need for drama queens and extra trash talk is very telling on your part. Go watch soap operas instead of sports. Nothing wrong with a bit of banter and going back and forth in a friendly and fun way, as I do with my friends. But come on man! People have in our modern day have lost touch. They feel this insatiable need to be “entertained” all the time. Just enjoy golf and enjoy life. Stop looking for drama. It doesn’t spice up life. It’s just needless and pointless.

    • Jafar

      Apr 15, 2015 at 12:21 pm

      Golf is a good place to get away from “everyone”.

      More people should watch it because they enjoy and understand the game.

      That kind of mentality doesn’t help boxing and it didn’t help Seattle win a Super Bowl two years in a row.

      Trash talk is for people who are too scared to let their skills do the talking. And doing it right after winning guarantees your quick downfall to reality.

  5. Ronald Montesano

    Apr 13, 2015 at 6:28 am

    I don’t know that the #2 ranking point is germane to the question, is this a rivalry? It’s trivial.

    The answer to the headline question is no, but feel free to disagree. Every golfer on every professional tour rivals her/his colleagues, so saying that any one-on-one is more important. To the best of my knowledge, Rory and Jordan have not gone head-to-head down the stretch in any professional tournament, nor has either expressed any outward dislike for the other.

    Sergio attempted to create a rivalry with Tiger in the late 1990s, but that failed due to the Spaniard’s performance. The media loves to create rivalries, as the mere headline tantalizes and creates argumentative discourse. I have no reason to elevate Jordan Spieth above any other, one-time major winner. He’s not even Dave Marr yet.

    • Rich

      Apr 13, 2015 at 9:52 am

      The media criticising the media. That’s funny.

  6. dapadre

    Apr 13, 2015 at 4:08 am

    This Masters brought forth and confirmed the following point for me:

    Golf has a new darling and Im a fan. Like how this kid carries himself in all areas.

    This is not a fluke. His record speaks for itself even before the Masters. Look at his top 10 finishes and other stats and well as wins or near wins. Keep in mind he tore up the Masters after its was Tiger-Proof.

    Distance is WAY overrated. If you can reach Par 5’s in two, whats the issue. Spieth is not a long hitter, TAKEN. but he is NOT short. His iron play and putting is lights out. The scary thing is that this is not the first time he has shown these qualities (strong iron play an putting). What many also fail to realize is that he is not that accurate off the tee. During the Masters he was better than usual, but even when is not he is in contention and that is scary. A player who is always in contention is going to do well.

    That Chamblee is a moron and clearly DOESNT know what he is talking about and his tirade on Tiger is strictly personal. Saw no YIPS from Tiger and for a guy who hasnt competed in while did quite well. His partner in crime Haney is Buthurt.

    That golf is Tee to Green, period.

  7. Nathan

    Apr 13, 2015 at 12:39 am

    I knew who wrote this story just by reading the heading.

    • Kevin Casey

      Apr 13, 2015 at 1:09 am

      I’m going to be optimistic and take that as a compliment. So, thank you, Nathan!

      • Scooter McGavin

        Apr 13, 2015 at 6:41 am

        You shouldn’t take it as a compliment.

        • Jack

          Apr 15, 2015 at 5:51 am

          He’s a college student. The whole world is ahead of him.

  8. MHendon

    Apr 12, 2015 at 10:59 pm

    I’ll take clutch putting, well above avg iron play, and avg distance off the tee over streaky putting, above avg iron play, and well above avg distance off the tee any day. In other words its about the putting. I think people confuse Tigers greatness with his distance but really it was his putting. Jordan reminded me of him on the greens today.

    • Kevin Casey

      Apr 12, 2015 at 11:16 pm

      I can see where you’re coming from there. And I don’t think it’s nearly out of the question that Spieth could be as good as or better than McIlroy. It’s just that the greatest players of all time (which McIlroy will be in if he continues on this trajectory) have a high majority of really long hitters.

      It goes to show that not having elite power makes it a lot more difficult to be an all time great. But certainly not impossible! And it’s a lot more impressive to see a guy without elite power on that list, because he has a clear disadvantage that he legitimately cannot fix.

      Spieth dominating a course that really favors big hitters is certainly a good sign for him, I’m just saying that the distance gap between him and McIlroy could be a looming issue. That extra power allows Rory to be less than stellar in other categories and still be at the top, whereas Spieth doesn’t have near as much margin for error here.

      You mention Tiger, and there’s no doubt putting has played a large role in his success. But his power certainly has also. It’s allowed him to dominate despite being absolutely abysmal when it comes to accuracy off the tee.

      I really like Spieth and certainly see a bright future ahead. I’d say he has a more polished game than McIlroy, and if anybody could make that distance gap a moot point, Spieth is near the top of the list.

      Just a looming issue, though, that I’m unsure of. We’ll have a better answer there a few years from now.

      • Jack

        Apr 15, 2015 at 5:57 am

        Spieth has been playing well for a while now, but his putter was just on fire it seemed this tournament. If he somehow maintains it, then he’s going to be a great. Tiger at his prime was awesome with his putter. Doesn’t matter if you drive it really long and then lob it, or drive it fairly long and then PW it. You’re going to score with a great putter.

        He killed it on Par 5’s, and if you can do that, then driving distance is enough. He struggled with it last year, and was pretty decent the year before that.

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