Jordan Spieth’s record-setting win at the Masters could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to Rory McIlroy.
The emergence of a new star with a real feeling for the nuances of Augusta National can only bode well for the world No 1, whose closing 66 simply underlined that fact the he’s a stunningly talented athlete with the game to bring Augusta to its knees.
Four successive sub-par round (the last of them seven shots better than playing parter Tiger Woods) show that McIlroy is slowly coming to grips with what it takes to conquer the Cathedral of Pines. After all, his total of 12 under 276 would have won 75% of the 79 Masters Tournaments held so far.
Only Tiger Woods (1997) and Spieth with 18 under, Jack Nicklaus (1965) and Ray Floyd (1976) with 17 under, Woods (2001) and Mickelson (2010) with 16 under, Ben Hogan, Ben Crenshaw (1995) and Charl Schwartzel (in 2011, 14 under) and Seve Ballesteros and Fred Couples have ever shot lower than McIlroy's around Augusta National.
Had it not been for that opening nine of 40 on Friday or a lukewarm putter on Sunday — he made six but also had chances for birdie or eagle at the 1st (17ft), 2nd (6ft), fourth (8ft), 10th (13ft), 12th (23ft), 13th (eagle 8ft), 14th (37ft), 15th (eagle 18ft), 16th (8ft) and 17th (17ft) — Irish golf could have a Masters champion.
Instead, golf has a superstar who is now second in the world only to McIlroy and gunning for his place at the top.
"That was an incredible performance," said six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus in a statement. "It was so apparent that he learned down the stretch last year, but you have to remember, he was only 20 at the time.
"Now he's a grizzled veteran at 21 years old - just 21. Jordan is so beyond his years. I like everything about the young man. He's polite. He's humble. He handles himself so well, on and off the golf course. And he's obviously a wonderful player and now a Masters champion. I think Jordan Spieth is a great person - just as I think Rory McIlroy is - to carry the mantle for the game of golf."
Spieth will move to No. 2 in the world, one spot behind McIlroy, who finished fourth. Those two, along with Patrick Reed (24), Rickie Fowler (26), Hideki Matsuyama (23) and Jason Day (27) have been making plenty of noise on Tour the last two years and Nicklaus has noticed.
"I am someone who likes the new generations. I always have. I think it energises the game of golf. We had Arnold's generation; then it came to my generation; then Tom Watson came along; and right on down the line to Tiger and Rory. And now we have Jordan Spieth. There are some older players who have been terrific for a long time, but actually this might be time for the young guys to take over."
Reed confirmed on Sunday that he will play in the Irish Open at Royal County Down but it’s Spieth who’s looking to join the wave of young guns chasing McIlroy’s world No 1 ranking.
‘Yeah, I think it's great,” Spieth said after a closing 70 gave him a four shot win over Justin Rose and Phil Mickelson on 18 under with McIlroy six behind in a career best fourth place.
“There's an incredible amount of young talent. Guys are coming out and winning quickly, and a lot. We're all very respectful of each other. We all root for each other. And it's not like I'm out there with Patrick Reed saying I hope he misses his putt. It's, I hope I make this, and I hope I make two in a row on top.
“That's just kind of the mentality we all have as younger guys coming out now. More comfortable that junior golf tours, college golf, amateur golf, has grown and it's gotten much better and that's the reason you're seeing it. I don't think that it has anything to do with players being out or absent from tournaments.
“I think it has to do with a great overall preparation through these different tours now where you kind of almost play it like a PGA TOUR event the way it's structured.
“As far as with Rory, he's got four majors. That's something I can still only dream about; and just numerous wins. I'll never hit it as far as he does and I have to make up for that somewhere else. He's an unbelievably nice guy. Carries that World No. 1 with class.
“I don't know, as far as a rivalry right now. Look forward to getting in the heat of the moment with him a couple times in the near future and see if we can battle it out and test our games.”
McIlroy had bittersweet feelings about the week, especially his four over par front nine of 40 on Friday.
“I wish I would have finished off a little bit better,” he said of the chances he missed. “But, yeah, happy with how I played over the last couple of days. Even the last 45 holes I think I was 15‑under par for those.
“So, happy with how I finished, just obviously left myself with a bit too much to do after 27 holes of this tournament and that's what really cost me.”
Was the pressure of completing the career Grand Slam too much?
“No, not at all. I prepared really, really well for this tournament. I came in feeling good and, no, I felt like I played okay on Thursday. I got it in in red numbers. Just the start on Friday was really what killed me. But as you've seen over the last 45 holes, again, there I'm playing very nicely. It's just a matter of putting it all together.”
He later said: “I played well. I can take a lot of positives from it. It is my best ever finish here. I played the last 45 holes in 15‑under par. I did a lot of things I wanted to do. I played the par‑5s well. Just left myself too much to do after 27 holes of this golf tournament — 40 on the front nine on Friday, that really left me with an uphill battle.
"It was just great to get in for the weekend and made the most of a great finish on Friday.
“I thought if I could start fast and shoot 64, it might put some sort of pressure on the guys behind, but I didn't start that fast and got going in the middle of the round, but even that wouldn't really matter.
"Jordan just went out and played, it looks like, a really, really solid round of golf.
“It’s obviously very, very impressive. I was fortunate enough to feel something pretty similar with my win at Congressional and it's a special time for him to be able to walk up the last hole to enjoy, to see it, to really let it all sink in.
"It's not a feeling many people get, especially with their first Major Championship like Tiger had it here in 1997, I was fortunate enough to have it and Jordan is going to have it as well.
“It's great for him. He's been playing great for a 21 year old, he's way more mature than I was at 21 and a hell of a golfer and a great person as well. So I'm really happy for him.”
Spieth and McIlroy are opposite sides of the same coin. While McIlroy excels as a ball-striker, Spieth is an all rounder and far more of a feel player, which helps him compete better than most at the Masters.
“I think imagination,” Spieth said when asked how he had solved the riddle of Augusta by finishing second and first in his first two Masters. “I think very feel based. I grew up playing a lot more than I did hitting balls on the range and just hitting the same thing over and over again.
“I like to see ‑‑ kind of like Bubba, I like to see lines. I like to see shapes, and especially on the greens, I like putts that break. I like being able to kind of cast something out and let it feed in and be very speed‑based. I feel like that's been a strength of mine in the past growing up until now.
“And that's what this course gives. From the minute I played it, I was very ‑‑ from the first time I played, I was very excited because I felt like it really suited my game. I'm really happy that this major comes here every year (laughter), to have a course like that.
“But ultimately, I think it just comes down to imagination and casting things out and seeing lines. You're never hitting off a flat slope unless it's a tee shot or a par 3. Those are the only shots you hit off a flat spot out there. Every other shot is significantly above your feet, downslope, below your feet or whatever, and you've just got to adapt to it."
Spieth might have his sights set on McIlroy's world No 1 ranking but McIlroy didn't sound threatened when asked about his latest rival on Saturday.
"I just have to worry about myself and try and play the best that I can," said McIlroy. "I know if I do that then that No 1 position is pretty safe. He's obviously been playing great golf since the end of last year with a couple of wins and being in contention basically every time he plays. He's playing very well - but I know I have the capability to do the same thing."