AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tennis and boxing and professional wrestling and presidential politics are set up for great rivalries. Golf is not. It’s the nature of the sport.
See, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer play all the time. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders go at it every day. You can always match up two great boxers. But in golf, so many things have to come together for two greats to climb to the top of a major championship leaderboard at the same time.
And then, even when it actually does happen, both have to play well to make it interesting. They have to feed off each other, push each other, inspire each other, intimidate each other. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are the greatest players of the last generation. And yet, they were never really rivals. They never had that major championship moment.
Saturday, we hoped to see the emergence of a true rivalry – golf’s first since Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson – when Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy teed off in the final group of the Masters third round. It seemed perfect. Rivalries are made by contrasting styles, right? Well, here was Spieth, the thinking man, the scrambler, the genius with a wedge, the brilliant putter. And here was McIlroy, majestic, Superman, hitting some of the longest drives and some of the highest shots on earth.
Spieth won the Masters wire to wire last year, then won the U.S. Open, then almost won the Open Championship and the PGA.
McIlroy won a U.S. Open with the lowest score in the tournament’s history, and he won a PGA Championship by a record eight shots.
We all thought this was the beginning of a beautiful rivalry.
No. Maybe the rivalry will emerge someday, but that day was not Saturday. On Saturday, McIlroy shot a listless 77 and did not make even one birdie. Not one. It was the first time in 81 major championship rounds that he failed to make even a single birdie. Spieth had his own troubles late in the third round, which we will get into in a little bit. But the fight was long over by then. It was McIlroy who singlehandedly killed the rivalry spirit that buzzed around Augusta.
McIlroy seems to have a bit of a Masters problem. Everyone knows by now that he needs only a victory at Augusta to complete the career Grand Slam. McIlroy knows it better than anyone, and he does not seem to know exactly how to go about it. He has always prepared intently for the Masters – coming early, playing as many rounds here as he could, studying every yard of this course – but that apparently wasn’t working, so this year he decided to go the other way.
“I’m trying not to look too much into it,” he said at the beginning of the week. “I’m trying not to hit so many shots off tees into greens, around the greens. I’m just trying to approach it in a more relaxed way.”
Does that make sense to you? There were others – including Phil Mickelson – who seemed puzzled by this laissez-faire approach. But hey, sure enough, there was McIlroy on Saturday, one shot out of the lead, playing in the final group with Spieth. So maybe the relax plan was working. There certainly was a lot of excitement about McIlroy and Spieth playing together on the weekend for the first time. Asked about it, Spieth was typically honest.
“It’s exciting to play with Rory,” he said. “It’s even a little bit intimidating, he’s such a great player who can just overpower a golf course.”
And what did McIlroy say coming in?
“I don't really look at the names on the left of the leaderboard. I'm looking at the number that's on the very far right just to see how many shots I'm back. Doesn't make a difference to me who it is up there."
OK, maybe you believe the whole notion that McIlroy wanted to relax for the Masters this year. But you CANNOT believe this bit of nonsense. There is absolutely no way that Rory McIlroy does not look at the names of players he’s trying to beat. There’s no chance of it. And the reason we KNOW there’s no chance of it is because, right, McIlroy himself said the opposite.
“What Jordan did here last year, the U.S. Open and the whole way through the summer and what Jason Day did during the summer and this year, as well ‑ yeah, I don't want to be left behind,” he said. “I want to be a part of that conversation. … [Jordan] is a phenomenal talent, and you know, it’s my job and Jason’s job and everyone else’s job to try to stop him from dominating.”
Of course he knows. But it makes you wonder: Who was he trying to convince when he said “Doesn’t make a difference to me who is up there?” The answer seems clear: He was trying to convince himself.
This speaks, I think, to McIlroy’s bewilderment at Augusta. He seems to be playing mind games with himself to get ready. And, of course, those mind games will break at the first sign of Augusta pressure. McIlroy looked unsettled and uncertain more or less from the first hole on Saturday. He hit drives into bunkers, he made a dreadful decision at No. 11 to hit the ball out of the pine straw toward the green (the ball rolled into the water because the ball ALWAYS rolls into the water on shots like that), he putted without confidence, he looked like he needed a friend.
“I was playing tentative,” he admitted after the round. “I didn’t think anything was off, it was just … I was always trying to get something going, and I just couldn’t.”
By the 17th tee, Spieth had turned his one-shot lead over McIlroy into an eight-shot lead, and McIlroy looked like he had been through a losing fight. The last two holes changed the dynamic some, but even so, McIlroy knows the score here. “It is his to lose,” McIlroy said. “He’s been in control of this tournament from the first day.” Then he did brighten a little. “I am feeling a little better standing here five behind than I felt on the 17th,” he said.
Yes, now to Spieth and that stunning finish. He was fantastic for 16 holes. Oh, he had his problems too. He hit the ball all over the place early in the round. He made his own a dreadful double bogey at the 11th after a perfect drive. But he pushed through. He broke McIlroy’s spirit by scrambling out of trouble, by making impossible-looking putts. He won this rivalry day by TKO on the 12th hole, when he sank a 17-foot putt for birdie and then watched McIlroy miss his own significantly shorter birdie putt. At the 17th tee, Spieth had that eight-shot lead over McIlroy and a four-shot lead over everyone else. This tournament seemed all but over.
And then, just say it, Spieth went haywire. He hit driver on the 17th though a 3-wood was the prudent play – Spieth never makes mistakes like that – and he drove the ball way right. Spieth then hit a nice punch shot that rolled to the front of the green but, for some reason, completely flubbed his approach shot and left it 20 feet shot. He made bogey.
On the 18th, it was worse. He hit another drive way right. Another layup shot. He chunked a brutal approach that stopped 50 feet short of the hole. And his first putt was stunningly limp and stopped nine feet short. That was a double bogey.
With that his score plummeted from 6 under to just 3 under par. He’s still in the lead but only by one shot over Smylie Kaufman, who sounds like someone who would win the Masters in a “Minions” movie, and by two over 58-year-old Bernhard Langer and Japanese superstar Hideki Matsuyama. Even more to the point, Spieth seemed to have buried the ever dangerous Jason Day and Dustin Johnson and Danny Willett. Now they are all just three shots back and very much in the game.
Spieth beat himself up relentlessly for his two-hole carelessness.
“It’s very difficult,” he said. “It’s going to be very difficult. As I look at the leaderboard now, if I can just make three pars to finish … even just saying that, I can’t think that way. But that certainly brings anyone who is over par almost out of the tournament. And now, with very little wind tomorrow, someone gets on a run …”
He went on this self-loathing bit for a while. Spieth was absolutely seething at himself for the finish. He tried to keep reminding himself that, hey, he’s in the lead – seventh consecutive round he’s led at Augusta, by the way, a record – and that was his goal. If someone had guaranteed him a one-shot lead going into Sunday, he would have taken it and not even played the last three days. But, of course, it’s not that simple. I asked Spieth how easy it will be for him to let go of the last two holes and get himself into a winning frame of mind Sunday.
“I think it will be tough, personally,” he said. “I mean, honestly, I think it will be tough to put it behind me. I think I will, but that wasn’t a fun last couple of holes to play from the position I was in. I’m not going to dodge the question by any means. It’s not going to be fun tonight for a little while. Hopefully I just sleep it off, and it’s fine tomorrow. I imagine that will be the case.”
This, to me, is part of what separates Spieth. He does not hide from the pressure. He does not try to pretend it away. He does not act as if playing with Rory McIlroy is no big deal, he does not run from the overwhelming expectations that now surround him, and he does not cover up his feelings. Spieth sees things clearly. He’s got a one-shot lead going into the final round of the Masters, and the weather is supposed to be calm, some of the players with a lot of firepower – including McIlroy – could string a bunch of birdies together and take the green jacket away from him if he doesn’t play lights out himself.
But, knowing how Spieth’s mind works, I imagine he’s right. I imagine it will be fine for him on Sunday.