ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Rory McIlroy famously lists his goals for the upcoming year on his boarding card on his way to his first event of the new season.
Whatever the Northern Irishman penned onto that card on his way to Abu Dhabi – reclaim the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking, win that elusive green jacket and complete the career Grand Slam, steer clear of pick-up soccer matches – the simplest and most direct route to most of those goals is through Jordan Spieth, who McIlroy will be grouped with for the first two rounds at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
While the names have changed, it’s a familiar feeling for the world’s third-ranked player. Although the Middle East kickoff is early and far removed from the pressure that looms at Augusta National and beyond, there’s something to be said for announcing your presence with authority.
“Teeing off on Thursday morning, it's your first competitive shot in a couple of months. To tee up alongside those guys, the excitement. There's a buzz about it,” said McIlroy, who will also be joined on Thursday and Friday by Rickie Fowler. “It was sort of the same last year with Rickie and the previous couple of years it was with Tiger [Woods]. You're teeing off the first round of your season and it feels like you're right into the thick of things at the start.”
McIlroy would go on to explain that there are 142 other players assembled for this week’s lead-off event that he’s just as keen to beat, but it’s the metaphorical match with Spieth that will make Abu Dhabi the center of the golf universe this week.
Spieth seemed to embrace the gravity of the moment a little more profoundly, figuring that it’s best to acknowledge the elephant in the room than try and dance around it.
“I'm very excited about the pairing,” Spieth said. “We very rarely get this pairing and very rarely will we get it going forward. 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.”
The two players have been grouped together 10 times on the PGA Tour, with Spieth holding a 5-3-2 advantage in those head-to-head match ups.
The competitive reality, however, is Spieth and McIlroy have never been paired together on the weekend, when it counts. Contrived Thursday and Friday groupings are great for fans and broadcast partners, but for this to escalate into a true rivalry there needs to be a mano-a-mano exchange on a Sunday afternoon, preferably during a major.
Still, McIlroy has made it clear his desire to ascend back atop the world rankings after losing the top spot late last season after being sidelined with an ankle injury that had him miss the Open Championship and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
But in simplest terms those types of esoteric goals tend to sort themselves out if the results on the golf course are there. In other words, beating Spieth would go a long way toward that end (although, according to the world ranking math McIlroy can’t overtake Spieth even with a victory this week).
“I've made no secret about I want to get back to that position, and I'd like to do it as quick as possible. So it's definitely a motivation,” said McIlroy, who admits to checking the world ranking each Monday as a way of tracking his performance.
For McIlroy, this week’s desert swing kickoff is very much a friendly confines deal. He’s won four times in Dubai, including last month’s DP World Tour Championship to complete his season on the European Tour, has finished runner-up four times in Abu Dhabi and spent the last two weeks in the United Arab Emirates preparing for his 2016 debut.
Yet what Spieth lacks in familiarity he’s made up for with impressive early-season form after beginning his year earlier this month with a commanding eight-stroke victory at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions that wasn’t even as close as the score might suggest.
Where the much-anticipated rivalry goes from here depends on whether the stars and each player’s game align at the right time, just don’t expect even a trace of contentiousness between the dynamic duo. Both are genuinely endearing characters who seem to share a fondness for each other.
Truth is, the closest the two will get to a scrum this week occurred on Tuesday when they competed in something called the Rider Cup Desert Challenge, which pitted an American tandem (Spieth and Fowler) against a European duo (McIlroy and Henrik Stenson) in a race on a motorized GolfBoard.
“Jordan nearly took me out,” McIlroy laughed. “We collided halfway down the fairway. Thankfully I didn't fall off. It was really good fun.”
The looming collision between Spieth and McIlroy won’t be nearly as dangerous, but it has the potential to be infinitely more compelling.