SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Ali vs. Frazier this was not, but then contrived rivalries rarely give way to instant classics.
To be fair, hype is seldom a precursor to history even when the stars are seemingly aligned in perfect order like they were heading into the opening act at the PGA Championship.
In one corner there was the top-ranked challenger fresh off two major championship victories this season and stewing over his near miss last month at St. Andrews. And in the pink trunks ... eh, golf pants ... was the reigning champion poised to prove five weeks of inactivity and an ailing ankle that has progressed through various shades of black and blue recently was nothing for the collective to be concerned with.
Rory McIlroy began Thursday’s opening round at Whistling Straits No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Jordan Spieth can unseat him atop the world this week with an assortment of mathematical scenarios, not to mention become the first player to win the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Championship in the same season.
For good fun the PGA of America paired the two for the first 36 holes hard on the shores of Lake Michigan alongside Open champion Zach Johnson.
As the new PGA Championship logo suggests, “This is Major,” because “This has the potential to be something cool” makes for a clunky logo.
The potential of something special was thick in the farmland air in the build-up to the year’s final major, except neither player was particularly sharp on Thursday, the byproduct of winds that gusted to 25 mph more so than the proverbial winds of change the media, both social and otherwise, have been predicting.
Jordan made nine consecutive pars to start his day, Rory was more erratic with two birdies and two bogeys; but they both arrived at the turn where they had started the day: at even par.
“I was pretty nervous on the first tee. It was just getting back out there, it was nice to get that opening tee shot out of the way,” McIlroy said. “Anything under par this afternoon was a decent score.”
Both players appeared to take a measured approach on an increasingly difficult golf course, playing their closing nine in 1 under par for matching 71s, which left the top of the marquee five strokes behind Day 1 leader Dustin Johnson.
But this goes well beyond numbers on a scorecard. Good play is a good start and ultimately necessary, but the new dynamic duo seems to also be lacking the required animosity that is such an important part of a good rivalry.
On the 11th green the two shared a good-natured laugh and earlier in the round Spieth regaled McIlroy with tales from the Open Championship, which Jordan didn’t win and Rory didn’t play.
Say what you will about the Tiger Woods/Phil Mickelson rivalry – which was equally contrived for the most part and ultimately rare – there was always an undertone of acrimony that, although both players dismissed, fueled the dynamic and polarized fans.
There is no such dynamic between McIlroy and Spieth, two infinitely likeable young men who hold a monsoon of respect for each other, and therefore there was no awkward tension, no forced handshakes or cool glares. Instead, we got smiles and laughs and, well, largely uninspired golf.
“I didn't see any difference in his game,” Spieth said when asked about McIlroy’s ailing ankle. “He seems 100 percent ready. Everything seemed to be on point, and I expect him to move up the board.”
On Thursday, instead of Rory vs. Jordan it was the DJ era, as if that type of distinction has the shelf life of the newest tablet or reality TV star.
It explains, at least in part, McIlroy’s apparent frustration on Wednesday with the concept of the cause célèbre.
“We live in such a world that everything's so reactionary and everything happens so quickly that a year ago after I won this tournament it was the Rory era and then Jordan wins the Masters and it's the Jordan era,” McIlroy said. “Eras last about six months these days instead of 20 years.”
By design, golf is defined by the long view. Careers last decades, not days and this was just Thursday, after all.
Time may tell a different tale, but bona fide rivalries occur organically and all the featured pairings and wishing in the golf world can’t manufacture the genuine item.
Rory vs. Jordan may materialize. We may find ourselves captivated by a modern “Duel in the Sun” on a Grand Slam Sunday someday soon, but those moments are special because they are so rare, because we wait years for them to occur.
No, this was no “Showdown in Sheboygan,” at least not on Thursday. But when it comes to rivalries we’re all eternal optimists, and there are still three more days remaining in this major championship season.