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Suddenly, Rory McIlroy has a major new rival in Jordan Spieth

By Karl MacGinty

One of the greatest recent fallacies in golf is that Rory McIlroy was born to win at Augusta National.

That mantle fits Masters record-breaker Jordan Spieth as snugly as his brand new Green Jacket.

The good news for McIlroy and his prospects one day soon of completing his career Grand Slam is that he's now found a way to make his glory game pay on the most strategically challenging course in golf.

Folklore is littered with big names, like Greg Norman, Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf and Ernie Els, who spent much of their life being told victory at the Masters was in their destiny.

Despite having 'the ideal game' for Augusta, each ended up with a frustrating collection of near-misses and a yawning gap in their closet.

Since his Masters debut in 2009, McIlroy has been bombarded with the same talk. All he had to do was turn up and hit those sky-high draw shots and the Golden Fleece would be his.

Yet after six visits to Augusta yielded just one top-10 finish, in 2013, and too many cluster muck-ups for comfort, he decided to do what Norman, Miller and Els all wished they'd done: rein back and play it cute at the Masters.

As he stepped to the cusp of career Grand Slam history last Thursday, McIlroy was happy he'd be able to make this more cogent or conservative game plan work.

But he couldn't be 100% sure… and it was upon those twin rocks of expectation and uncertainty that the Holywood star's Grand Slam ambitions perished during the first 27 holes of the Masters.

It's chilling to think that as he completed Augusta's front nine in 40 strokes on Friday, McIlroy was one outside the projected cut.

Had he merely capitulated and gone home after 36 holes, the world number one would have faced precisely the same quandary next year.

Only the Grand Slam pressure would have mounted exponentially.

And now, a new and hugely imposing 'Master of Augusta', Spieth must be added to the equation.

Instead, McIlroy readjusted his sights and embarked on the most significant training exercise of his career. After completing his final 45 holes in 15 under par, a career-best fourth place finish, yielding £327,000, pales into near-insignificance alongside the confidence McIlroy must take from this performance.

Duly armed, he will be master of his own destiny at Augusta next April and in an infinitely better position to cope with Grand Slam expectations and whatever proven Masters 'naturals' like Spieth, Bubba Watson, (creaking) Tiger Woods or (ageing) Phil Mickelson might throw at him.

It must also be hugely encouraging for McIlroy to post 12 under at the Masters with a sterile putter and, in the process, solve a long-standing conundrum on Augusta's par-fives (playing them in 14 under, including two eagles).

Still, he'll be disappointed not to have taken advantage of a soft golf course and receptive greens.

If ever playing conditions suited McIlroy at the Masters, it was last weekend, when even the SubAir system couldn't get the greens anywhere near as hard and bouncy as usual.

In this instance, SubAir sucked, but not enough, and balls were leaving pitch marks all the way up to Sunday lunchtime.

Was the system at full power, conspiracy theorists might ask. Were the denizens keen to give McIlroy every chance to make history last weekend?

Of course not! Yet the more forbidding Augusta gets in future, the more it's likely to suit Spieth, whose relative lack of brawn is compensated by a powerful analytical brain and a graphic imagination.

We saw the latter at 18 on Saturday when Spieth, supposedly reeling from a double bogey at the previous hole, played the flop-shot of the century over a greenside bunker and into the fringe before it trickled obediently onto the green.

As he swept to 18-under on Sunday, surpassing the all-time scoring record set by Tiger on a course 510 yards shorter in 1997 by one, the remarkable Texan threw down a gauntlet to McIlroy.

For the record, Spieth is the first pillar-to-post winner at the Masters since 1976 and only the fifth in history, while his haul of 28 birdies was three greater than the record 25 amassed by Mickelson in 2001.

Bottom line, a rival has emerged capable of stretching McIlroy to the limit of his potential over the next 20 years.

Imagine throwing the attributes of Spieth and McIlroy into a giant blender,

producing a golfer capable of generating the same spine-tingling power as the Ulsterman and blessed with the Texan's savant short game and sure putting touch.

The result, one suspects, would be Tiger, circa 2000. While we rejoice at the return of Woods to competency at the Masters and find it less difficult to imagine him winning another Major or two, let's not pretend we'll ever see his like again.

McIlroy has hastened the day when he's capable of donning a Green Jacket, while Spieth almost certainly will go on to record multiple victories at Augusta.

It will be fascinating to see how, if at all, the trapping of celebrity brought by the most momentous of Spieth's five professional victories will impact on his persona.

Though he lives in the £1.5million mansion he recently bought in his home town, Dallas, and despite his extraordinary talent, Spieth remains very grounded, ordinary.

He's still going steady with his high school sweetheart, brings home his washing to his mum and is totally devoted to his family and friends.

Spieth's bond with his younger sister Ellie, who has autism, has made him mature way beyond his 21 years in his appreciation of the simple but overwhelmingly important things in life.

Still, he's hugely ambitious.

For example, Spieth, second in the latest world rankings issued yesterday, makes no secret of his desire to replace McIlroy at the pinnacle of golf.

Bring it on, then.

The sport can't wait for these two wonderful young players to get into full flow.

Belfast Telegraph


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