Spieth-McIlroy rivalry lacks tension, drama

By Rex HoggardAugust 14, 2015, 1:01 am

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.


PGA Championship: Round 1 scores


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.

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Punch shot: Predictions for the 147th Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 18, 2018, 4:00 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – In advance of the 147th Open Championship, GolfChannel.com writers sound off on burning questions as players ready for a fast and firm test at Carnoustie. Here’s what our writers think about myriad topics:

The Monday morning headline will be …

REX HOGGARD: “Survival.” This one is easy. It always is at Carnoustie, which is widely considered The Open’s most demanding major championship test. Monday’s headline will be that the champion - pick a champion, any one will do - “survived” another dramatic Open. You don’t dominate Carnoustie; you endure.

RYAN LAVNER: “DJ Bashes Way to Victory at Carnoustie.” If somehow a two-win season could be disappointing, it has been for DJ. He’s first in scoring average, birdie average, par-4 scoring, par-5 scoring, strokes gained: tee to green and proximity from the rough. Those last two stats are the most important, especially here at Carnoustie, with these dry conditions. The game’s preeminent long-and-straight driver, there’s a better-than-decent chance he rolls.

MERCER BAGGS: “Rahm Tough: Spaniard charges to Open victory.” Jon Rahm will claim him maiden major title this week by powering his way through the winds and fescue at Carnoustie.

JAY COFFIN: “Thomas wins second major, ascends to world No. 1 again.” Shortly after The Open last year, Thomas rolled through the end of the PGA Tour season. This is the time of year he likes best. Despite a poor Open record the last two years, he’s not remotely concerned. He’s a tad miffed he didn’t win in France two weeks ago and comes to Carnoustie refreshed, with a gameplan, and ready to pounce.



Who or what will be the biggest surprise?

HOGGARD: Style of play. Given Carnoustie’s reputation as a brute, the surprise will be how the champion arrives at his lofty perch. Unlike previous editions at Carnoustie, this week’s dry conditions will promote more aggressive play off the tee and the winner will defy the norm and power his way to victory.

LAVNER: Tiger Woods. This is Woods’ best chance to win a major this year, and here’s believing he contends. His greatest strengths are his iron game and scrambling, and both aspects will be tested to the extreme at Carnoustie, helping separate him from some of the pretenders. With even a little cooperation from his putter, he should be in the mix.

BAGGS: Padraig Harrington. He had a good opening round last week at the Scottish Open and has some good vibes being the 2007 Open champion at Carnoustie. He won’t contend for four rounds, but a few days in the mix would be a nice surprise.

COFFIN: Alex Noren. Perhaps someone ranked 11th in the world shouldn’t be a surprise, but with so much focus on some of the bigger, household names, don’t be surprised when Noren is in contention on Sunday. He hasn’t finished worse than 25th since early May and won two weeks ago in France. He also tied for sixth place last year at Royal Birkdale.



Who or what will be the biggest disappointment?

HOGGARD: Jordan Spieth. Although he was brilliant on his way to victory last year at Royal Birkdale, Spieth is not the same player for this week’s championship, the byproduct of a balky putter that has eroded his confidence. Spieth said giving back the claret jug this week was hard, but his finish will be even tougher.

LAVNER: Weather. This might sound a little sadistic, but one of the unique joys of covering this tournament is to watch the best in the world battle conditions they face only once a year – the bone-chilling cold, the sideways rain, the howling wind. It doesn’t appear as though that’ll happen this year. With only a few hours of light rain expected, and no crazy winds in the forecast, the biggest challenge for these stars will be judging the bounces on the hard, baked-out turf.

BAGGS: Jordan Spieth. The defending champion is still trying to find his winning form and Carnoustie doesn’t seem the place to do that. As much as he says he loves playing in strong winds, there should be enough danger around here to frustrate Spieth into a missed cut.

COFFIN: Rory McIlroy. I hope I’m wrong on this, because the game is better when Rory is in contention at majors. Putting always has been his issue and seemingly always will be. While there isn’t as much of a premium placed on putting this week because of slower greens, he may still have to hit it close. Super close.



What will be the winning score?

HOGGARD: 10 under. The last two Opens played at Carnoustie were won with 7-under and 6-over totals, but this week’s conditions will favor more aggressive play and lower scores. Expect to see plenty of birdies, but the great equalizer will come on Sunday when wind gusts are forecast to reach 25 mph.

LAVNER: 15 under. An Open at Carnoustie has never produced a winner lower than 9 under (Tom Watson in 1975), but never have the conditions been this susceptible to low scores. Sure, the fairway bunkers are still a one-shot penalty, but today’s big hitters can fly them. The thin, wispy rough isn’t much of a deterrent. And the wind isn’t expected to really whip until the final day.

BAGGS: 12 under. We aren’t going to see the same kind of weather we have previously witnessed at Carnoustie, and that’s a shame. Any players who catch relatively benign conditions should be able to go low, as long as they can properly navigate the fairway rollout.

COFFIN: 14 under. Walked into a local golf shop in the town of Carnoustie wearing a Golf Channel logo and the man behind the counter said, “It’ll take 14 under to win this week.” Well, he’s been here for years and seen Carnoustie host The Open twice before. He knows more about it than I do, so I’ll stick with his number.

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Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 3:16 pm

Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.

Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.

This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):

While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:

Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.

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McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.

Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.

“It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”


Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.

“Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”

He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.  

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Height of irony: Phil putts in front of 'rules' sign

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 1:36 pm

A picture is worth 1,000 words and potentially two strokes for playing a moving ball under Rule 14-5 but not Rule 1-2.

Phil Mickelson has been having some fun during his Open prep at Carnoustie hitting flop shots over human beings, but the irony of this photo below is too obvious to go over anyone's head.

Mickelson also tried tapping down fescue two weeks ago at The Greenbrier, incurring another two-shot penalty.

And so we're left to wonder about what Phil asked himself back at Shinnecock Hills: "The real question is, ‘What am I going to do next?’”