Rory McIlroy playing second fiddle to Jordan Speith
Rory McIlroy arrived at Chambers Bay certain in his position as the No 1 player in the game and determined to prove it.
But even after carding a final round 66 to finish tied ninth on that US Open staple of even par, the 26-year-old from Holywood woke up yesterday realising that may only be half true. Or possibly not true at all.
Sure, he’s top of the world rankings but US Open winner Jordan Spieth — arguably a poor relation to McIlroy in every physical aspect of the game bar putting — has now won the last two Majors and more world ranking points than anyone else on the planet this year.
Since last year’s US Open at Pinehurst No 2, McIlroy and Spieth have won two Majors each with the 21-year-old American, the youngest US Open winner since Bobby Jones in 1923, now chasing more slices of history.
It will be sobering for McIlroy to realise that Spieth is now the youngest player to win The Masters and The US Open, beating the two greatest players of all time.
Jack Nicklaus was 23 and Tiger Woods 24 when they completed the double. But that’s not all.
Spieth’s also on track to complete the single season Grand Slam and with just a month to go before the game’s elite gather at St Andrews for The Open on the Old Course, McIlroy has some serious questions to answer.
The man who’s arguably his No 1 fan, 2014 European Ryder Cup skipper Paul McGinley, spoke before the Masters of McIlroy as head and shoulders above everybody else in the game.
By Sunday night, McGinley was admitting that McIlroy’s reign is now under threat and while he believes Spieth’s majestic rise to the top will only be good for the Ulsterman, it remains to be seen how he reacts.
“When someone wins their first Major like Jordan did, you expect added pressure and expectation put on their shoulders, but he just went and won the next one! He’s got something special,” McGinley (pictured) said.
“Rory’s now got to step up to the plate. As commendable as his performance was on Sunday and again during the final round of The Masters, the bottom line is he’s had too much ground to make up in both tournaments.
“He’s made the mistake of getting off to slow starts in each of the last two Majors and Jordan has gone on to win both of them. He’s putting it up to Rory which can only be a good thing.”
McIlroy was asked if LeBron James’ assertion before a decisive game in last week’s NBA Playoffs that he was the No 1 player in the game was super confidence, arrogance or a psychological ploy.
“I think when LeBron talks about that, that’s not confidence, that’s a fact,” McIlroy said. “He’s carried his team in these Finals. So if you look at the numbers, you can really see he is the best player in the world.
“And I guess for me I feel the same way, when I look at the world rankings and I see my name up at the top. If you look back at the last four or five years, I’ve won more Majors than anyone else in that time period. So do I feel like the best player in the world? Yes. And obviously I want to go out every week and try to back that up and show that.”
James didn’t win the game with the Cleveland Cavaliers as Steve Curry led the Golden State Warriors to a 4-2 win in the best of seven series.
Curry is a more cerebral player than James, and a better team man. Comparison between McIlroy and Spieth are legitimate, if only because they are so different .
“Jordan and Rory are very difficult to compare because they are so different,” Graeme McDowell said after Spieth’s stunning Masters win. “I think it’s a good thing to see a guy coming through who is not Dustin (Johnston) or Rory, guys like that who are dominating with physicality.
“We see a guy coming around who is average build, average size, hits it average distance. He’s not short but he’s not the longest player on the planet and he gets it done other ways. That’s exciting.”
Their rivalry is now very much THE storyline in the game — Spieth as the Novak Djokovic to McIlroy’s Roger Federer.
The US media have certainly been crying out for a figure to replace Woods as the face of golf and what McIlroy lacks as a European, clean cut Texan Spieth gives them red, white and blue.
In a 5,000 word transcript of his US Open media conference on Sunday night, there was not one mention or question about McIlroy.
Indeed, it’s McIlroy who should be asking himself questions, not just about his putting, which remains streaky and frequently suspect when compared to an artist like Spieth, but also about the way he mentally goes about breaking down a course.
Before Spieth spoke of his delight at winning without his “best stuff”, McIlroy admitted: “I’ve got a couple of weeks to work on my putting and get that up to the shape that it has been and especially the way it was last year. If I can do that and keep the long game where it is, I’m really excited about what can happen.”
Spieth’s dynamic interaction with his caddie, Michael Greller, was one of the highlights of the television coverage. But can McIlroy honestly say he was as well prepared?
Greg Norman wasn’t the only one to notice Spieth’s unworldly maturity for a 21-year-old.
“He is light years ahead of everybody else on tour because he has a complete game,” Norman said of the greatest brain in the game since Nicklaus.
“He has composure and he is mature beyond his years. He has really made collective positive decisions.
“Maybe it’s his dad, maybe it’s his caddie, maybe it’s his coach, I don’t know, but he has made some phenomenally mature decisions and never really lets things get away from him.
“On the front nine, he was a little bit edgy, a little bit agitated, a little bit out of sync, the putting stroke was a little bit quick. But as he got into it and he got into a position of winning, everything settled in.”
Chubby Chandler once damned McIlroy caddie JP Fitzgerald with faint praise, saying: “He may not be the best caddie in the world, but he’s the best caddie for Rory.”
That may still be true but if McIlroy is to outfox and outgun young rival Spieth at St Andrews, he’s going to need every aspect of his game on song.