Punch Shot: Spieth or McIlroy under more pressure?


World No. 1 Jordan Spieth and No. 3 Rory McIlroy are in the field for this week's Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Spieth is fresh off a historic season while McIlroy is coming off a trying, but still successful 2015. Who is under the most pressure to succeed this year? Our writers weigh in:


As Jordan Spieth proved in his first start of 2016, an eight-stroke romp at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, pressure is what you make of it; but there is no shifting away from the reality that it’s Rory McIlroy who will be feeling the heat this year.

McIlroy is, after all, coming off a relatively disappointing season thanks entirely to a mid-summer injury that had him miss the Open Championship and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. During that time he was also unseated atop the Official World Golf Ranking by Spieth and has since dropped to No. 3 in the world, behind Jason Day who is ranked second.

The challenge for McIlroy will be maintaining the momentum he gained after winning the season-ending DP World Tour Championship on the European Tour. But that victory was two months ago and he won’t make his first start on the PGA Tour until late next month at the Northern Trust Open.

The biggest pressure, however, for the Northern Irishman will come in April when he sets out, again, in pursuit of his first Masters title that would complete the career Grand Slam.

Pressure is always relative, but between the two world-beaters it’s McIlroy who will be feeling it the most in 2016.


Rory McIlroy is right.

When you’ve set the bar for yourself and those chasing you so high, there’s pressure to live up to that level of excellence. When you’re great, and you’re expected to be great, there’s pressure to keep delivering greatness. There’s also more scrutiny. All of a sudden, tying for 10th a few times in a row is failure.

“It will feel completely different for Jordan,” McIlroy said last month. “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. There’s so much expectation, so much attention and focus. And I think it is more self-inflicted pressure, really, as your expectations are so high.”

Yes, Spieth seemed immune winning Hyundai in an eight-shot runaway in his 2016 debut, but the challenge lies ahead, in dealing with the unrelenting scrutiny that will come when, inevitably, he isn’t great over a stretch of multiple starts. This isn’t to say Spieth won’t meet the challenges. It’s just saying there will be more pressure to do so as long as he’s carrying the No. 1 ranking. McIlroy has the same kind of pressure, still, but it will be new to Spieth.


Rory McIlroy is the player with the most to prove this year, and thus faces the most pressure. In many ways, Jordan Spieth has pushed McIlroy out of the limelight – he’s the reigning Player of the Year, the world No. 1 and the top earner in the marketplace. McIlroy has two more majors, the ultimate measuring stick, but also four more years of experience.

It’s no longer a no-brainer, that question about who would win when they’re at the top of their games, Spieth or McIlroy. The obvious answer was (and maybe still is) Rory, because he’s longer off the tee, he’s the best ball-striker on the planet and he has shown the ability to blow away fields in majors. Spieth’s talents are different, but no less effective. Just look at what happened at Kapalua – he still can demoralize opponents with his persistence, short game and putting. He also seems to play at that higher level more consistently.

Starting this week in Abu Dhabi, McIlroy has the opportunity to beat Spieth and remind everyone – his peers, the fans, probably even himself – who is golf’s alpha dog. 


Rory McIlroy was on top of the golf world at Valhalla in 2014. He went on to win four times in 2015 ... and suddenly he's third in the rankings.

As for 2016, Jordan Spieth has already won once this year - convincingly, by eight shots - and is evidencing no signs of slowing down.

If McIlroy is going to reclaim his No. 1 ranking, he is going to have to leapfrog both Spieth and Jason Day, who had a massive breakthrough of his own last season.

Throw in the added pressure of trying to win not just the Masters but the career Grand Slam, and McIlroy is facing more pressure at every turn, both to assert himself in the hunt for world No. 1 and in the quest to cement his place in history. Every year he doesn't win the Masters, that monkey on his back will get a little bigger and little heavier. Just ask Phil Mickelson.