Different perceptions as Spieth, McIlroy enter playoffs


FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – A little break from the grind can sometimes do wonders for the soul.

When the 2016 schedule was released, it was clear that golf’s top players would be kept busy. Marquee events rolled into WGCs, which bled into majors, and back again. For the game’s elite, the pause button would remain elusive for much of the summer.

But thanks to their respective decisions to skip the Olympics, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy have both had the luxury of a three-week hiatus. It gave them a chance to enter the PGA Tour’s postseason with a bit of a clean slate, as they look to improve upon seasons that have similar stats but vastly different perceptions.

For Spieth, the pain came early. While his 2016 season will largely be defined by the 12th hole at the Masters, he rebounded to win his second event of the year at Colonial the next month. The scars of Augusta have had time to heal, and his glass now sits half-full.

“I think it’s been a really good season,” he said. “If I have a season like this, and I’m out here 20 more years, that’s 50-some odd wins, so I’m certainly OK with that.”

His is the confidence of youth, a player not far removed from glory and one who trusts his process. He firmly believes that staying the course will return him to some of the lofty heights of last year.

Given a few weeks to rest and no longer burdened by lingering questions about his Olympic participation, Spieth now has a chance to improve upon a good-not-great year with another coveted prize still looming.

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“I’m very pleased with the way the season’s gone,” he said. “Again, I’m setting some pretty lofty goals for myself for the next six weeks, and it needs to cap off with us retaining that Ryder Cup. That’s very much on my mind.”

Like Spieth, McIlroy has six top-10s on the PGA Tour this season, with one victory to Spieth’s two. But compared to Spieth, McIlroy’s current outlook is far less rosy.

When we last saw the Ulsterman, he was busy putting his way to a missed cut at the PGA Championship, undone on the greens despite leading the field in strokes gained tee-to-green. As a result, McIlroy showed up to The Barclays after his three-week hiatus with a new piece of equipment – a mallet-style Scotty Cameron putter that he’ll put into use in the opening round.

“I think that was inevitable after my performance at Baltusrol,” McIlroy admitted.

The deeply rooted conviction displayed by Spieth isn’t present right now with McIlroy, who appears unmoored and resigned to a lengthy recovery on the greens.

“It’s going to be a process, because there’s a lot of things that I needed to change,” McIlroy said. “I got into some really bad habits, and it will take awhile to iron those fully out and get out of them. But I feel like I’ve made a good start with that.”

There has been work on correcting his putter path to avoid a “two-way miss,” as well as in-depth analysis of the pitfalls of the cross-handed stroke with which he has experimented this year. McIlroy is down to No. 5 in the world rankings, his lowest position since before his 2014 Open Championship triumph, and searching for answers.

“Leaving Baltusrol, obviously I was very disappointed and I needed to think about a few things,” he said. “I needed to assess where my game was and address a few issues.”

It’s the type of soul-searching McIlroy endured in 2013 while adjusting to his new Nike equipment, and it happens to align with the company’s decision to exit the golf equipment business. While McIlroy doesn’t plan to overhaul his bag outside of the putter change, it’s clear that whatever momentum he garnered with his victory this summer at the Irish Open has long since faded.

“I guess for me, I’m trying to judge my year on wins,” he said. “There’s been one of those, which was a very emotional win and something that meant a lot to me. But in the bigger scheme of our overall golf year, it wasn’t a big win. It wasn’t a major, it wasn’t a World Golf Championship.”

Given three weeks to rest and re-assess, Spieth and McIlroy are ready to return to competition this week in New York, the start of a six-week stretch that will culminate with them as opponents at Hazeltine.

For one, it’s an opportunity to improve on a quality campaign. For the other, though, there’s a bit more on the line.

“Look, it hasn’t been the year that I wanted,” McIlroy said. “But I still feel like there’s enough golf left this year to salvage it, and call it somewhat of a successful season.”