Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth will be paired together for the first two rounds of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship in what many are hoping will be the first half of a 72-hole duel in the desert for the some pre-Masters bragging rights.
Unlike tennis, golf’s rivalries rarely throw up the kind of head to head classics you associate with Borg v McEnroe or Ali v Fraser. After all, Tiger and Phil are probably bettered remembered for their failure to gel in a Ryder Cup match than they are for their thrilling duels.
Unlike the PGA Tour, which always split Woods and Mickelson in the draw, the European Tour has lumped all it’s eggs into one basket and grouped McIlroy with Spieth and Rickie Fowler.
“I’m very excited about the pairing, yeah,” Spieth said. "I figured that we’d all be split up, so yesterday I was on the course when I found out and I was very excited. Yeah, it's a tremendous opportunity for us three. We very rarely get this pairing and very rarely will going forward.”
Later, the American added: "So we'll take advantage and try and really feed off of each other. We all want to beat each other pretty bad, so that should help us out within our group.”
Murphy’s Law may well kick in and world No 6 Fowler — a player Padraig Harrington regards as worthy of inclusion in a Big Five alongside Spieth, McIlroy, Jason Day and Bubba Watson — will steal all the thunder.
McIlroy, the world No 3, is making his seasonal start in Abu Dhabi for the ninth year in a row and while his record reads T11, T5, 3rd, 2nd, 2nd, MC, T2 and 2nd, he almost finds himself in a position where he is obliged to win the tournament for the first time.
Answering end of year questions about his majorless 2015 and Spieth’s two-major year, McIlroy merely pointed out that it would be tough for the Texan to follow up in 2016 with more major wins.
He was speaking from experience having won two majors himself in 2014 and then ended up majorless in ’15. But it almost sounded like wishful thinking that he said that, “it will feel completely different for Jordan. If you look at the stats at how those who have had a double-major season have performed the next year - well, it's hard to back up. It just is.”
McIlroy started 2nd-1st in Abu Dhabi and Dubai last year while Spieth’s 8-shot win in Hawaii two weeks ago was a sign that he’s not ready to ease off just yet.
Of course, both men dealt ably with the questions on Wednesday with McIlroy pointing out that he wasn’t trying to lay down any markers or make any points.
“I don’t play the game on markers at all,” McIlroy said. "I want to play my best, and I don't have to just beat Jordan Spieth this week. I have to beat another 142 guys.
“So it would be foolish of me to think that that’s all that my competition was, because -- and 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 that could win the tournament, it doesn't -- it's not really smart to do that."
For smart, Spieth’s answer to the burden of expectation question went a long way towards describing what appears to be his calcuating, analytical mind.
Q. I just wonder how your mind-set changes, maybe it doesn't at all, as now the clear No. 1 in the world, a double Major winner, I don't want to say the guy with a target on his back, but the centre of attention in golf in a lot of ways. Are you conscious to not let that change your attitude and approach?
JORDAN SPIETH: I think there's two ways of going forward with that. One is you can be satisfied and think about all the stuff you've done. Or two, you can look at what these guys who you’ve looked up to your whole life have accomplished more than you have, right.
McIlroy hasn’t played an official event for eight weeks but givern that he has had eye surgery and can now read the niumber on a golf ball from 20 feet away, any improvement in his putting or short game efficiency may cancel out the ring rust.
Harrington won’t be in Abu Dhabi but he’s seen enough of golf’s new world order to express the view that Fowler and Bubba are worthy of inclusion in the same breath as Spieth, Day and McIlroy.
“As good as Rickie is, and I always pick him out as the star to watch, I was baffled by his selection at the start of last year as the underachiever,” Harrington said of the Californian who won The Players, the Scottish Open and the Deutsche Bank Championship having finished in the top 5 in all four majors in 2014.
“I don’t think he’s overachieved at all. I think Rickie Fowler is the real deal, not that I’m saying something people don’t already know. He could easily be in that top three. Physically he has got a great game and his head is in the right place.
“And it is silly to count only those top three when there is Bubba Watson too.”
This, Harrington believes, is the difference between the current era and the TIger Woods years. There are more players who can lap fields with their A games that ever before and as a result, nothing but excellence will do, week in and week out, as someone produces diamond encrusted golf every week of the year.
"When Tiger turned up with his A game, he dominated the field. There are probably four guys and a few fringe players on top of that, if they turn up with their A game, they are going to dominate the field.
“It is unlikely they will turn up with their A game and somebody else will turn up with theirs too. It will be fascinating to watch all these guys with their A games but what we are seeing more and more because of the strength in depth is A games winning and nothing else.
"Somebody is going to play lights out every week. Whereas Tiger was able to win with his B game. I am not saying these guys don’t have a good B game, but that they likelihood is that somebody is going to have their A game every week.
“People want to see Rory v Jordan on their A game but the chances of that happening in the same week are so slim. This is what has happened. Jordan and Rory have proved they can lap fields. Jason Day has proved it. Tiger was able to do that. Bubba has lapped fields.”
What impresses Harrington about Fowler is his “general demeanour.”
But having seen McIlroy bounce back from a 71st hole double to win in Abu Dhabi — Harrington did the same thing at PGA National in March and still won the Honda Classic — he sees the Holywood kid developing the skills that allow him to win with something like his A-minus or possibly even his B game at some stage in the future.
But like everyone else in the game, the Dubliner is fascinated by Spieth and what makes the Texan tick.
“What Jordan has the X-factor, which is more important than anything else. What is it? If we could write that down, we would be all doing it. You can’t pigeonhole him. With Bubba, he is a prodigious driver of the ball, everybody says it’s his driving that has turned him into a great player. The reality of Bubba is that he has always driven the ball like that. He has just putted better.
“Jordan has something there on the mental side that isn’t easy to quantify. You can’t see it. It is underneath. It is not on the surface. People point to the putting and he seems to be a stand out putter and yes he is a really good putter. But I can tell you, he does an awful lot more good things than that. He does lots of good stuff — he is a very good iron player. He is an excellent chipper. He drives the ball… he is not long by today’s standards. He is normal length. But he is a good driver of the ball.
'The reality is that the X-factor is the most important thing he has. Where he believes he is, is where he believes he should be. Belief is the important thing. It is the mental side. It is something you can’t teach but you have got to learn or evolve into it.”
Graeme McDowell summed up Spieth a few years ago by saying he wasn’t great driver in the world but drove the ball great; wasn’t the greatest iron player but hit great iron shots; wasn’t the best chipper, but still chipped very well.
Harrington goes a step further in his analysis and wonders how Spieth will react when the putts stop dropping and the criticism starts. Will Spieth listen to the critics or remain focussed?
“People underestimate how good he is,” Harrington believes. “Why? Because they can’t jump out there and label him. He is pretty good at all those things. It is just they are all pretty solid that his putting stands out. I actually think his chipping is pretty good. There is just something special about who he is. And that is what makes him.
“Rory would be pretty similar but it is easier to pigeonhole Rory as a great driver of the ball. There is no doubt he plays his best when he gains confidence from his driving 100 percent. People pigeonhole Rory because they can see that.
"Jason Day, physically, is a great swinger of the golf club. So it is easy to say that that is what he does. Bubba hits it a long way and that’s what he does. Maybe Adam Scott you could say he has a great swing. Adam is easy to pigeon hole, he doesn’t putt well. We all like to have our categories and it is very hard to have that with Jordan, bar he’s a good putter which is really underestimating him.”
Kevin Phelan played a collegiate event with Spieth before they turned professional and was impressed by the way the American fearlessly defended a final round lead by attacking a tough course.
“I am sure he is afraid,” says Harrington, who used the fear factor to fuel his own career at his best. “He just doesn’t react to it. It is not fearlessness, it is dealing with the fear that makes him good.
“The hardest thing for Jordan going forward is the media attention. If Jordan misses a four footer, the commentator will say, well he missed that because he looked at the hole. And then on the next hole, he misses a four footer and the commentator will say that he missed that one because he didn’t look at the hole.”
There is no hiding place…..
“Well there is. As long as he never pay attention to the outside world thinks about him. He is so good that the only problem is the pressure from the outside world is going to be his biggest challenge going forward; people looking and saying he could drive the ball better if his left hand grip was more orthodox. Or if he didn't look at the hole, he’d hole more putts. Jordan is going to be far more analysed than any other player ever because everyone is trying to figure him out.
“It was easy to figure out TW. Tiger hit the ball great…”
And he holed everything?
“Yes, he swung the club great but that’s ultimately what he did do, he holed everything. He also turned himself into a physical specimen of an athlete. There was nothing Tiger Woods he didn’t do well. Amateur golfers always respected Tiger Woods because they never felt they could be Tiger Woods because he was just so good. But Jordan is a normal looking lad, he doesn’t look bulked up. At every golf club there is a player who can hit the ball at the same speed whereas Tiger was light years ahead of everybody when he came out. It was startling. You would have struggled to find long drive guys to keep up with Tiger when he came out in 1996.”
Unlike with Woods or even McIlroy, top players are not looking at Spieth and thinking, we’re in trouble here as Harrington once felt when he practiced alongside a top player at the start of his career.
“No. Not at all. Jordan is still a mystery to a lot of guys. He even said it himself when he played with Jason Day in the PGA, that he couldn’t keep up with him. So it is easy to see when Bubba plays well or when Rory plays well or when Jason plays well. They all start by driving the golf ball prodigious distances like when Tiger was playing great. Everybody was looking at shots he’d hit and saying, ‘God I can’t hit that shot.’ With Jordan, every shot he hits, as good as they are, are not beyond most players.
“I remember playing in the Trophée Lance in France and the guy beside me, I should remember his name, started hitting irons and the ground shook. That’s how powerful he was. He was basically hitting an iron, a one iron, but it was carrying into a tree where my driver was finishing at the end of the range. I couldn’t do that. Nobody could do that. And that guy went on become a world class player. You’d struggled to compete against him because you’d feel he had an advantage and tiger always had that.
"People struggled against him because they felt, I can’t do what he does. Phil Mickelson said it in Abu Dhabi two or three years ago, when he played with Rory. He said he couldn’t compete where Rory was hitting his tee shots. Rory does that. Bubba does that. Jason day clearly did it to Jordan. So what does Jordan do? Well, he’s got the X-Factor.”
How McIlroy reacts going forward will be interesting but one thing that Harrington and Paul McGinley believe is crucial is that McIlroy does not obsess about his putting. He must, they believe, accept that he is going to be streaky on the greens.
“The best thing to happen to Rory is that he wins tournaments where he isn’t playing his best because that’s what Tiger used to do. Up to now, Rory tends to be on all cylinders when he is winning, Whereas Tiger was brilliant at keeping himself in there with his B game and winning down the stretch. I didn’t see much of DP World Tour Championship but for myself, there is nothing more positive for me than to get into contention down the stretch and hit it in the water and still win, as Rory did. The positive nature of being able to hit a bad shot and still win — wow. Why would you worry about hitting a bad shot?”