ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – For those tasked with filling column inches and airtime it’s become common practice to compare the games of golf’s standard-bearers in recent months.
For Jordan Spieth it’s been a story of rolling in putts from the Masters to Moline (for the record, he averaged 78 feet of putts made per round in 2015, nearly the length of a basketball court) and otherwise dissecting golf courses like a taxidermist.
By contrast, when he’s healthy Rory McIlroy has the ability to manhandle even the longest courses (see PGA Championship, 2014) with drives that seem to linger in the afternoon sky longer than they should.
Which style is preferred and will better stand the test of time is the subject of much debate, as if the world would settle for just a single flavor at Baskin-Robbins.
What made Thursday’s action at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship special was the proximity of the divergent styles. Spieth and McIlroy set out together for Round 1 in what amounted to a competitive petri dish.
For those who savor variety, consider Thursday’s action: at No. 1, the group’s 10th hole of the day, Spieth eased a 10-footer for par into the hole. At the 18th hole, their ninth, McIlroy hit a drive that sailed some 30 yards farther than Spieth’s on his way to a birdie.
And so it was in between the beginning and ending, alpha and omega at ... well, not their best but certainly better than one would expect given the early hour of the season.
Spieth dealt with a two-way miss with his driver – hitting just eight of 14 fairways and referring to himself as “short and crooked” – while McIlroy battled a schizophrenic putter, one-putting his first two greens for birdie only to three-putt the 13th and 17th holes for bogeys.
When the duo’s day was done just past lunch, they were in a statistical dead heat considering there are still 54 holes to play. McIlroy opened with a 66 for a share of third place, two strokes clear of Spieth (68) who retired to the practice tee after his round in search of answers for his balky driver.
“I didn't drive the ball well, which is really the key out here,” said Spieth, who was issued a “monitoring” penalty by officials late in his round for violation the tour’s slow play policy. “To shoot 4 under with the way I felt with my driver is spectacular.”
After playing the part of scrapper to perfection on the front nine, going three-for-three in par saves, Spieth made a mess of the fifth hole after a bad drive, tough approach and terrible chip that never found the putting surface.
“I feel like I scrambled pretty well for the majority of the round, and then a couple wedge shots just really hurt me from making it a great round,” said Spieth, who is making his European Tour desert swing debut.
For Spieth, the juxtaposition between the way he digs out a score and how McIlroy plays is often striking. Despite more than a month away from tournament play, the Northern Irishman turned in a mid-season performance off the tee.
“I’d give it an 8 or 9 [out of 10],” McIlroy said of his driver on Day 1. “I wasn’t perfect, but I am driving it really well and feel like I got a bit of strength back over the break.”
It’s a telling component of their rivalry, be it real or perceived, that both Spieth and McIlroy have a genuine appreciation for how the other plays the game.
For Spieth, it was worth the trip to the Middle East to see McIlroy dismantle a course the way he did on Thursday.
“It’s the Rory I’ve seen win majors,” Spieth said. “It’s fun to watch someone stripe it. I’m not capable of hitting the ball as far as he does. It’s like playing with [Jason] Day or Dustin [Johnson]; they’re in a different league.”
McIlroy was equally effusive when asked about the world No. 1’s game.
“The thing that always impresses me any time I do watch Jordan or I get to play with Jordan is obviously his putting is exceptional, but his speed on the greens,” McIlroy said. “The ball is always traveling at a speed towards the hole that either has a chance to go in or if it doesn't go in, is going to only go 2 or 3 feet past.”
This is neither an endorsement nor an indictment of either style, simply an intriguing comparison and contrast of two distinct ways to play the game. Both methods, after all, have produced wildly historic results in recent years.
Yet many experts seem to give the edge to McIlroy in a head-to-head duel between the two if, and that is a big if, both are playing their best.
After a solid, if not spectacular day for both on Thursday that theory probably gained some traction; but we won’t know for sure until they both take to the field with their Sunday best.
After watching Thursday’s give and take, that sublime showdown could be just a day away.