AUGUSTA, Ga. – For all the attempts to manufacture suspense with contrived marquee pairings on Days 1 and 2 of a major, it never has the same feel as when these types of title bouts emerge organically.
When players like world No. 2 Jordan Spieth and No. 3 Rory McIlroy find themselves setting out for a weekend round in the day’s ultimate two-ball as a result of stellar play – and not the strained creations of marketing executives – is when the game is at its best.
If Game 7 is the best phrase in all of sports, a final pairing of Rory and Jordan on Day 3 at Augusta National is only slightly less inspiring than if the duo ended up setting out together on Sunday.
But it’s best not to get ahead of ourselves.
After all, it’s not as though this was blaze-of-glory stuff. When Spieth opened with a first-round 66, the rest of the pack was always going to need a little help making a game of this. And on another challenging day for golf the defending champion obliged.
After opening up a five-stroke lead with birdies at Nos. 1 and 3, Spieth four-putted the fifth hole for a double bogey-6. As an aside, Ernie Els, who endured a six-putt on Thursday at the first hole, can take some solace that even the game’s best putter can succumb to the cruel fortunes of Augusta National’s demanding greens.
After playing his next 10 holes in even par (two birdies, two bogeys), Spieth finished with back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 16 and 17 for his first ever over-par round at the Masters and an afternoon engagement with McIlroy, who grinded his way to a second-round 71.
“It will be a fun round tomorrow,” said Spieth, whose 2-over 74 left him at 4 under par and a stroke clear of McIlroy. “We enjoy playing with each other. We've both played well. We've both played poorly. Just both seem to be on our games right now and obviously really focused on this week.”
Of course, how Spieth and McIlroy ended up in Saturday’s final group is best left unanalyzed. After all, you really don’t want to know how the sausage is made.
It’s the “who,” more so than the “how,” that matters when the stars align in such a desired way.
Spieth and McIlroy will need no introduction on the first tee Saturday afternoon. The duo has been paired together 13 times in PGA Tour events – with McIlroy holding a 7-4-2 advantage – but just once on the weekend.
For the record, neither player was particularly interested in fueling what promises to be a frenzied build up to Saturday’s main attraction.
McIlroy, who admits to having a tendency of peeking at leaderboards throughout the round, was less interested in Nos. 2 and 3 playing alongside one another than the numbers posted to the iconic board that looms over Augusta National’s 18th green.
“If anything, 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,” McIlroy said. “It doesn't make a difference to me who it is up there.”
And while Saturday’s pairing of two of the game’s most compelling and competitive players may count as bucket-list stuff for your average golf fan, the two leading men would muddle on just fine Saturday if they would have found themselves with, say, Soren Kjeldsen or Kiradech Aphibarnrat, who are both relatively unknown in American golf circles and both on the leaderboard.
As compelling as the last twosome is to the general population, the added element of a heavyweight tilt is a distraction they could live without.
“I'd rather be playing with someone less threatening, to be honest,” said Spieth, who has now held at least a share of the lead after seven of his 10 rounds at Augusta National, including the last six consecutive. “He's certainly proven himself in majors. But I think it's going to be fun, a really fun challenge.”
The appeal of these types of duels, beyond the obvious competitive curiosity, is that they don’t happen very often.
For years fans pined for a Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson duel at Augusta National but the two legends have been paired together just twice at the Masters, and just once (2001) when it mattered, when they teed off on Sunday in the day’s last group.
It’s why Saturday’s pairing is destined to be a cause célèbre whether the two players choose to embrace it.
“I don't think I can get wrapped up in that and buy into the ‘Big Three,’” McIlroy said. “Of course, it's great for the game. But whenever I'm out there playing and competing, that's absolutely not what I should be thinking about.”
Luckily the rest of us can leave the competitive blinders to the professionals and savor the all-to-rare distraction of a genuine marquee matchup on a major stage.