TPC Sawgrass levels the ground for Spieth at The Players Championship.
Spieth wants to be McIlroy’s rival. He wants to be No. 1 in the world. He wants to tower over the game, but he knows he has to prove he’s McIlroy’s equal before he can be anything more.
With his Masters victory last month, Spieth moved to No. 2 in the world behind McIlroy, but he still feels far removed from the top, especially with McIlroy winning the WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship last weekend.
“As far as a rivalry goes, he moved even further away from it really being what I would consider a budding rivalry,” Spieth said Wednesday. “I could certainly appreciate if I could get to where he's at, but, right now, I don't see myself there. There's a lot of hard work that needs to be had to get there.”
McIlroy and Spieth will be grouped together along with Jason Day in the first two rounds this week. McIlroy dismissed Spieth when asked if he paid much attention to media hyping Spieth as his next rival.
“Not really,” McIlroy said. “Last year it was Rickie, this year it's Jordan, might be someone else, too, could have been Tiger. There have been four or five rivalries over the past year. So, it doesn't really do anything for me.”
Spieth knows he has to win more big events to distinguish himself from McIlroy’s wannabe rivals.
“It's certainly a huge goal of mine to make it interesting with him and possibly take over No. 1, but I know that he is as far ahead of me as I am with the next nine guys,” Spieth said. “So with that being said, it's kind of anybody's game to get up there and make it interesting. I just happen to be the one that occupies No. 2 right now.”
That’s why the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course feels like the perfect terrain for Spieth to make it interesting.
Architect Pete Dye’s design levels the ground for two completely different kinds of players.
“I heard something that it tests everyone and favors no one," McIlroy said.
Just listening to McIlroy and Spieth Wednesday, you couldn’t help concluding the Stadium Course favors Spieth.
McIlroy missed the cut the first three years he teed it up in The Players Championship. He didn’t even break par, but he’s figuring out how to play the Stadium Course. He tied for eighth in 2014 and tied for sixth last year.
Still, when asked to pick one word to describe Dye’s design, McIlroy didn’t need much time to come up with it.
“Frustrating,” he said.
McIlroy, though, did call it his favorite Dye course. What that means is hard to know. His favorite form of torture?
“This golf course, it magnifies your weaknesses,” McIlroy said. “If your game is off just a little bit in any department, it really magnifies that during this week. You don't have to hit it that long off the tee, but you have to be really precise.”
Spieth tied for fourth in his first Players Championship last year. He was tied for the lead with Martin Kaymer going into the final round with Kaymer ultimately winning. Even with that, Spieth fell in love with the place.
“Incredible golf course,” Spieth said. “One of the best in the world, one of my favorites in the world.”
At 21, Spieth isn’t a power player. He plays tactically, maneuvering his way to the best angles. His short game and putting stroke are the envy of most players, including McIlroy.
Asked what part of Spieth’s game he would most like to have, McIlroy chose Spieth’s putting.
“He's obviously been putting phenomenally well over the past few months,” McIlroy said. “I think that's been a big thing for him. You look at the putts holed and the putts that he's holed when he needed to. That's been a big reason why he's done so well.”
At 26, McIlroy’s a power player. He’s one of the longest drivers on tour and still hits a lot of fairways. He’s 11th in driving distance and still impressively 58th in driving accuracy.
Asked what part of McIlroy’s game he would most like to have, Spieth’s answer surprised nobody.
“I would like to hit it as far as he does,” Spieth said.
At the Stadium Course, Spieth doesn’t have to hit it as far as McIlroy, who learned missing those cuts here that he can’t hit a lot of drivers.
“It's always hard for me when I can't get driver in my hand, because I feel like when I get driver in my hand I can give myself an advantage over the rest of the field,” McIlroy said. “It's just about being very patient and approaching it a different way, winning a different way.”
That McIlroy has to play differently here makes this perfect terrain for Spieth to make this rivalry talk more interesting to McIlroy.