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Golf's galacticos Rory McIlroy and and Jordan Spieth drive each other on to rule the World

By Kevin Garside

Published 21/01/2016

Back in the swing of things: Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth of America will face each other for the first time in 2016 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, which gets under way today
Back in the swing of things: Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth of America will face each other for the first time in 2016 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, which gets under way today
Jordan Spieth
Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy

There are 126 players in the field at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, including four of the world's top six golfers, yet such is the way of things, two names tower above the rest.

World No.1 Jordan Spieth, who began the year as he ended the last one with a victory - at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii - and No.3 Rory McIlroy come together as galacticos contesting a golfing clasico.

Between them they colonised the two seasons just past, winning four Majors and trading places at the top of the World rankings.

McIlroy hit the front emphatically in the latter half of 2014, taking the Open Championship and PGA Championship to end the year a hefty four ranking points clear of the field. His position coming into the 2015 Masters was thought to be unassailable.

We had not reckoned with a 21-year-old Texan who stole the Augusta narrative so utterly from McIlroy with disturbing nerve, and went on to add the US Open two months later when Dustin Johnson lost his.

Between them they had split golf's biggest prizes, dealing at a stroke with any lingering anxiety golf's stakeholders might have had over the decline of Tiger Woods.

In this phase of their evolving rivalry, Ulsterman McIlroy is cast as the chaser, which, despite the modest nature of his commentary, does not sit comfortably in the psyche of a man who likes to pulverise the opposition, and who has spent 95 weeks in the spot presently occupied by Spieth.

"I've made no secret about wanting to get back to that position, and I'd like to do it as quickly as possible," McIlroy said. "So it's definitely a motivation. I like to look at it and see where I'm at, especially the strength of field for this week and how many points you would get for a win, so it's always there."

Victory on Sunday would let McIlroy climb to second at the expense of Jason Day, a step in the right direction rather than a goal in itself.

Much as he likes to crunch the numbers and bask in the associated glow of that No.1 ranking, he understands that finishing ahead of Spieth is a necessary component but not sufficient.

"I don't have to just beat Jordan Spieth. I have to beat another 124 guys. So it would be foolish of me to think that that's all that my competition was.

"I think it would be an injustice to every other player that's in the field, because there's so much talent on tour and there's so much depth that if you forget about everyone else, it's not really smart to do that."

While we accept the logic of the point, the impact of Spieth's achievements is beginning to acquire serious psychological ballast, augmented no end by his eight-shot win a fortnight ago with a 30-under-par total.

The boy is in everybody's head, not just McIlroy's. Though it must be doubly frustrating for the latter, who can smoke a golf ball in a way that makes even Spieth's eyes water.

Let me take you back to the Friday of Augusta in 2014, when McIlroy and Spieth (pictured) were paired together in the opening two rounds, to demonstrate McIlroy's problem.

The Ulsterman missed a short one at the ninth which would have given him a share of the lead. His drive at the 10th, where it all fell apart in 2011, was imperious.

Spieth was on the fairway 50 yards short of McIlroy's ball, meaning a long iron approach to an inhospitable green, which he found sure enough.

McIlroy, with a wedge in his hand, pitched his ball way over the flag and saw it roll down the bank into the pine needles below. It would take another shot to secure the putting surface and three more to find the hole. Spieth rolled in a putt of 22 feet for a birdie, effecting a devastating three-shot swing in one hole.

McIlroy would drop two more shots through Amen Corner, despite dissecting the fairways at 11 and 13 with drives of epic grandeur.

The doyen of golf photography, Dave Cannon, estimated McIlroy's ball to be 70 yards longer off the 13th tee than Spieth's. One would record a birdie, the other a bogey. Answers on a postcard, please.

In four holes Spieth had taken as many strokes out of McIlroy despite being blitzed off the tee.

That sequence cost McIlroy a chance to fight at the front. He recovered across the weekend to finish in a tie for eighth place but it was Spieth who wrestled Bubba Watson for the Green Jacket on the Sunday.

Twelve months later, Spieth led from wire to wire to begin his insinuation into the minds of others.

This is McIlroy's challenge in 2016, to sharpen his wedges and to hit the putts with greater authority.

In other words, play like Spieth from 150 yards in. The laser treatment restoring 20-20 vision to chronic eyes can't have hurt. Spieth, we know, will roll on regardless, making history his own sweet way.

Spieth said: "You can be satisfied and think about all the stuff you've done or you can look at what these guys who you've looked up to your whole life have accomplished more than you have.

"So look at Tiger, Phil (Mickelson), Rory, these guys that have done more in the game of golf than I have, and I want to strive to get to what they have done.

"I want my name to go down in history for as many things as it can. That's where my mind is.

"I'm less satisfied with what's happened and more hungry to try and keep it going. I understand that it doesn't happen overnight. It's a marathon, it's not a sprint. I'm willing to put in that time and go through the process.

"And you're going to have good weeks, you're going to have off weeks, I understand that. But as long as you can get just a little bit better each year, then the results will come."

McIlroy has been runner-up four times in Abu Dhabi, most commonly to Martin Kaymer, a two-time Major winner and one of those capable of making the pips of anybody squeak around a track on which he has recorded three victories.

There is considerable thunder, too, in the games of Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler, Branden Grace and Danny Willett, not to mention Andy Sullivan, who ran McIlroy close in the Race to Dubai climax at the DP World Championship in November, and the estimable rookies Byeong-hun An and Matt Fitzpatrick.

Elsewhere, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter, fresh from leading roles as Darren Clarke's Europe sealed Eurasia Cup victory against Asia last week, continue their attempts to punch a hole in the World's top 50.

Any of the above might inscribe the week with a winning storyline, but it is Spieth and McIlroy, playing alongside Fowler today and tomorrow, on whom the eyes of the world are trained.

McIlroy added: "Teeing off on Thursday morning, it's your first competitive shot in a couple of months. To tee up alongside those guys, the excitement, there's a buzz about it."

He's not wrong.

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