Rory McIlroy’s greatest asset (if you’re a golf writer) is that he nearly always says what’s on his mind. In this case, he admitted what we all thought — Jordan Spieth annoys him with his putting prowess, even if he also finds it impressive.
In the first head to head that really mattered, Spieth crushed him utterly but then made the scoreline look respectable in the end with a finish that made him “want to break something.”
“So it was kind of just a blah round at that,” Spieth said. “But again, it’s always nice walking 18 holes with him.”
Mcilroy was made to squirm on the end of a pin all day as he failed to make a birdie in a major for the first time since 2010, shooting a 77 that looked like and 87 to a 73 for Spieth that should have been a 70 and looked like a 65.
“I turned around on, after 15, I said, how the hell is he 2‑under par today? McIlroy confessed. “But it's his most impressive asset, it's his most impressive ‑‑ and as much as it could be annoying to his competitors, it's very, very impressive.
“I think that the guys that are out there that are playing that golf course today, we're the ones that appreciate that the most. And as much as it does dishearten you seeing those putts lip in, you got to take your hat off to him, because he is such a grinder and such a battler and he always sticks in there.
“It's a tough finish, but he'll come out here and speak to you guys and be positive and still be in the lead. And he's sitting on top of the leaderboard where he has been for basically the last three years here, so he's going out there tomorrow and it's his to lose. There's a few guys that have a chance and I feel like if I can get off to a good start, you never know.”
Having more physical talent than your opponent and still getting whacked made the contest look like one of those Floyd Mayweather contests that ends with the stronger boxer failing to land so much as a glove on the Money, even on a bad day.
Whether he is having a good day or a bad one, Spieth’s ability to get the ball in the hole is astounding, even if he does look like he is dodging traffic on roller-skates with a tray full of cokes in one hand while carrying a small child under his arm.
The postmortems in the media are not kind to McIlroy, whose Masters task (bar a miraculous comeback today) has now become even bigger mentally.
Writing in the August Chronicle, Scott Michaux pointed out a few numbers that are telling:
“Saturday marked the 15th time in their careers that Spieth and McIlroy were paired together in a tournament, but it was the first time they’d teed off together on a weekend.
"After a couple of significant showdowns between Spieth and Day last year in majors, McIlroy had to be salivating at the chance to prove his technical superiority against his presumed rival. In their 14 previous head-to-head match-ups, the Northern Irishman owned an 8-4-2 record while shooting a cumulative 35-under par to Spieth’s 7-under.
“Augusta National isn’t Abu Dhabi or Doral or the Valero Texas Open, though. When they played the first two rounds together at the 2014 Masters, Spieth bruised McIlroy, 70-77, in the second round after they matched 71s in the opener.This was shaping up the same way as McIlroy kept bleeding strokes until he was eight shots behind through 16 holes.”
Spieth’s finish made the final result look more respectable but this is one that will linger with McIlroy for a while longer.
The fact that he claimed that ’today was my bad day”, sounds like a many trying to convince himself that what happened was more accidental that circumstantial.
That he’s hoping Spieth feels that pressure today is also interesting in that his said that before adding that the Texan might have an advantage over everyone bar Bernhard Langer,
“I hope so. Yeah, he's been in control of this golf tournament from the first day. But, I mean, pressure's ‑‑ I haven't got a Green Jacket, he has. So there's added pressure that comes with that, too.
“So, we'll see what happens tomorrow. But I'm just, as I said, I'm feeling a little better standing here five behind than I was on the 17th tee. So I have to take some heart from that and regroup and come back and be positive tomorrow.”
McIlroy’s mental strength comes and goes depending on how the wind is blowing and looking from the outside, one wonders what he means when he said he was “a little tentative out there” and yet he plays a suicide shot at the 11th by attempting that low running hook.
His caddie looked on passively as he shimmied out over the window ledge wearing nothing but his socks and — surprise— fell 25 storeys to the pavement as his RM5 monogrammed ball turned left early and ran into the pond. That Spieth also made a double bogey made it even more painful.
“ I was trying to make pars, because pars are good, obviously pars are good,” McIlroy said, after making his 14th double or worse at Augusta National.
“But at the same time, you still need to try and play your natural game and my natural game is to be quite aggressive and to go at pins.
“But it's hard to do that in conditions like today. So that's why it's going to be a little more benign tomorrow and I think you'll see guys going at pins a little bit more and especially everyone knows where the pins are going to be on the back nine on Sunday here, so we all know what they are and feel like you can get if going and get some momentum on the front nine and who knows what can happen on the back.”
Sunday is now a free-for-all and McIlroy needs to land a few haymakers to change the perception some of the world’s media now have of him as damaged goods when it comes to Spieth.
Writing in USA Today, Luke Kerr-Dineen feels Spieth now has an advantage over McIlroy in that he has refused to rise to the bait and go toe to toe verbally in the rivalry stakes.
On their rivalry, he writes:
Jordan Spieth doesn’t engage whenever he’s asked about it in return. “I’d rather be playing with someone less threatening to be honest,” was his latest line when asked about his Saturday pairing with McIlroy.
This all has to do with where each player gets their motivation. Spieth’s is clearly more internal: He wants to do his thing in his way for his own reasons. Talk of a rivalry, if it has any effect at all, isn’t useful to him so he avoids it.
Rory is the opposite. He seems to draw his motivation from external factors. He’s an alpha dog, and when a guy like Spieth ascends onto his pedestal, it doesn’t sit well. Except recently, it seems like that mindset is getting him into trouble.
The piece was headlined, “Did playing with Jordan Spieth psych-out Rory McIlroy?
The Bleacher Report’s Greg Couch wrote a story headlined, “Jordan Spieth's Rout of Rory McIlroy in Showdown Has Impact Beyond 2016 Masters.”
Sure, Rory McIlroy lost to Augusta National on Saturday, but more so he was beaten down by Jordan Spieth. It was a knockout, a no-hitter and a Hail Mary all in one, even though there were no punches, pitches or passes.
Spieth and McIlroy are now golf's great rivalry, having officially bypassed and shut down the Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson thing. But it takes a head-to-head matchup to really know about the shape of a rivalry. And what we saw Saturday was exactly how one-sided this thing really is.
Spieth was not great, but for most of the day, the ball kept going in anyway. McIlroy wasn't great either, and the ball went all over the place. Spieth is still in the lead, one stroke ahead of unknown Smylie Kaufman, who sounds less like a champion golfer than an emoji…
“Spieth was frustrated throughout the day but relentless mentally on his putts. He was finding a way to score well. Meanwhile, McIlroy kept seeing that while Spieth kept watching McIlroy's positive body language slip away. When one star sees another one moping, it's over.”