Rory McIlroy needs to muster all forces for rivalry that could define age

Jordan Spieth admits he has been focused on chasing down the world number one

Jordan Spieth  leans on the shoulder of caddie Michael Greller after winning the  US Open Championship at Chambers Bay. Photograph: Stephen Brashear/EPA

Jordan Spieth leans on the shoulder of caddie Michael Greller after winning the US Open Championship at Chambers Bay. Photograph: Stephen Brashear/EPA

 

Just as players were required to go from A to B to get to C on the viciously sloping greens at Chambers Bay, Rory McIlroy’s route to next month’s British Open at St Andrews – where he will defend his title and seek to derail the young pretender from taking another step towards a Spieth slam – won’t involve quite so much zigzagging: the world number one will head there very much focused, with Jordan Spieth’s evolvement as a Major player providing a real edge to sharpen the mind.

“I really feel like my game is in great shape. Where my long game is, that bodes well for the next few months. I am hitting the ball so well and striking it so well, if I can get the putting into shape there is no reason why this summer can’t be just as good as last summer,” said McIlroy who, of course, achieved back-to-back Major wins in 2014 when winning the British Open and US PGA.

Raised the ante

McIlroy – who closed with a 66 that fizzled out over the closing holes and earned him a share of ninth – went home to Florida following Sunday’s case of what might have been in Washington state, where his putter proved to be a foe.

He plans to return home to Belfast on Tuesday and then on to the Scottish Open in a fortnight’s time ahead of the Open itself. There’ll be plenty of links golf factored into his time at home; and a lot of work on his putting.

At some point, maybe next week, or maybe even on the Monday and Tuesday before the Scottish Open, he plans on making a reconnaissance trip to St Andrews. McIlroy knows the course like the back of his hand but – especially with a new rival firmly on the scene – there is no such thing as under-doing preparation.

Second Captains

Apart from the physical journey ahead, McIlroy is only too aware that his destination, in reaching St Andrews, is about responding to Spieth’s growing status. He remains the world number one but the gap between the two has closed to less than a two-point average and, between them, at a combined 47 years of age, the pair now currently hold all four Majors.

Spieth, who will take a charter to St Andrews after playing in the John Deere Classic on the PGA Tour, has admitted to being focused on chasing down McIlroy. “Rory has four Majors and dozens of wins and I’m just starting out. I’m certainly quite a bit younger than he is. I’m just happy to have this all and to be chasing that number-one spot which he holds. So I’m certainly focused on that,” said Spieth.

A golfing rivalry fuels the sport like no other. In the past, we’ve had Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. We’ve had Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. What’s different this time is an international dimension, Europe versus the United States; and, of course, the prospect of an enduring rivalry given how young they are.

Calendar year

“And I figured if anybody was going to do it, it would be [Woods], which he still can. I think we’ll just use that secret formula and see if we can maybe have [success] the two weeks that the majors are held.

British-style

“And I’m just excited for the opportunity coming then, and I’m not going to think about what could possibly happen after.”

Spieth’s only previous visit to St Andrews was calling in ahead of a Walker Cup match in Aberdeen four years ago.

“I remember walking around The R&A clubhouse and seeing paintings of royalty playing golf, and it was dated 14-whatever, 1460-something,” Spieth recalls.

“I’m thinking, our country was discovered in 1492 and they were playing golf here before anyone even knew that the Americas existed. And that really amazed me and helped me realise exactly how special that place is.”

In just over three weeks time, Spieth will be seeking to add his name to history there too.

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