We’re on the precipice of a sea change in the world of professional golf. It’s been coming for some time, but many of us expected a reversal of fortunes to halt what amounts to a coup d’etat.
At the end of 2014, Rory McIlroy was the undisputed king of both his own generation, and the sport of golf itself. Pundits (myself included) were openly wondering if he’d win 10 majors in his career, or perhaps even challenge Tiger Woods for second all-time with 14.
Jordan Spieth took a big chunk out of this dominance narrative in 2015, winning the first two majors of the season and nearly winning two more. Even so, Rory was at the top of the heap, and remained there—albeit loosely—through the next year, as neither Jason Day nor Dustin Johnson managed to capitalize with more than one major victory.
The world rankings fluctuated, and nobody would argue that Rory was actively the best player at every moment, but in terms of career achievements, he kept his nose well ahead of the pack. And it was only a matter of time, we thought, before he’d find his old stride and leave them in the dust.
Well, some of us thought that—others, the true believers, maintained that Spieth would catch him with time. And in the wake of last month’s incredible win at the Open Championship, it looks like the Spieth partisans might be on the right side of history after all.
Their man now has three majors to Rory’s four, but if he wins this weekend at Quail Hollow, he’ll do more than tie his rival—he’ll have completed the career grand slam, a triumph which has eluded Rory (he still lacks a green jacket). Let me put that a different way: Spieth is one weekend away from overtaking the only active player (sorry, Tiger) ahead of him in the entire sport.
Those are some incredibly high stakes, both for Spieth and McIlroy. The latter has fallen into a predictable, depressing pattern—start the big tournaments slow, make the cut, find some late form, make a thrilling charge on Sunday, fade away late.
Thousands of words have been written on his odd malaise, but in short, he seems to lack the ambition and passion that defined his younger days. Whether this is a temporary downturn or a lasting crisis remains to be seen, but if you’re a Rory fanatic, now seems like a good time for some stomach-churning anxiety.
The fundamental difference between Spieth and McIlroy is that Spieth has a personality better tailored to his chosen sport. Rory can be spectacular, and his top level is undoubtedly greater than Spieth’s, but the American has consistency and temperament on his side.
It’s beginning to look like those qualities are better suited to amassing trophies over the long haul.
Even in his moments of volatility, as in the nervous final round at Royal Birkdale, he manages to dig deep and pull out something awe-inspiring. He also has the benefit of time—Spieth just turned 24, while Rory is 28.
Clearly, both still have years ahead of them, but it may be time to start accepting that when this story is fully told, Spieth will be the Nicklaus-like legend, while Rory will be the erratic, occasionally brilliant, second fiddle.
Yet there is good news for Rory in the enormous success he’s had at Quail Hollow. This was the site of his maiden PGA Tour victory in 2010, and is one of only two courses in America where he’s won twice. (On a third occasion, in 2012, he made the playoff and lost to Rickie Fowler.)
You could argue, very convincingly, that this is his favorite course in the country. He has a new caddie, which could go infuse him with energy, and if what he admitted in 2016 is true—that the success of a rival like Spieth motivates him—then his ambition should be sky-high. All of this, combined with his decent showing last week at the Bridgestone, makes him the narrow favourite over his rival.
But there’s something about Spieth right now that just inspires a deeper confidence. It goes beyond his excellent game, and into the strange, half-genius, half-inscrutable terrain inside his head.
Witnessing the long putts he inevitably drops at the most critical junctures, the endless monologue with his caddie Michael Greller (possibly the hardest working man in golf), and the obsessive, neurotic, and paradoxically consistent demeanour that produces such routine excellence, it becomes impossible to pick against him.
But if you insist, here are a few other solid choices for the year’s final major.
Rickie Fowler — 18/1
You can set your watch by the fact that Rickie Fowler will have at least one close call in a major per year, and at a course like Quail Hollow, which he loves almost as much as Rory does. it’s the sight of one of his four PGA Tour wins and it’s inevitable that he will come into Sunday with a chance to win.
This chance, of course, is very different than actually winning the thing, but that’s what’s so great about Paddy Power paying eight places…he doesn’t have to!
Thomas Pieters — 40/1
Pieters looked like a world-beater for three rounds at the Bridgestone last week, only to fade with a very pedestrian 71 on Sunday. But don’t mistake him for a shrinking violet, we saw his toughness at the Ryder Cup last year and you could almost see the anger rising off him like smoke on Sunday as he fell down the leaderboard.
If that was any kind of learning experience, it won’t be a surprise to see him make a serious run at the Wannamaker Trophy this weekend.
Zach Johnson — 80/1
Every time you forget about this man, he turns up. Incredibly, he could move himself to within one major victory shy of the career slam if he wins in Charlotte (he’d only lack the U.S. Open), and based on his steady play and excellent putting at Bridgestone, where he finished second, he’s a steal at these odds.
The harder this course plays, the better it will be for him.