There was a time, not that long ago, when Rory McIlroy owned professional golf.
McIlroy was the game’s new golden child, the winner of four major championships at age 25 and blessed with an endearing streak of precociousness that pairs beautifully with an extraordinary set of physical skills.
When he finished last summer by winning the British Open Championship, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship in successive starts, the game had shifted inexorably from Tiger Woods to McIlroy.
And now it’s Jordan Spieth’s world, or so it seems — even to McIlroy.
“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 (PGA Championship), it was the Rory era and then Jordan wins the Masters and it’s the Jordan era,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “Eras last about six months these days instead of 20 years, but it’s just the way the world is.”
Spieth, 22, won the Masters and the U.S. Open this year and missed a playoff for the British Open by a stroke last month. McIlroy, a Northern Irishman, was rehabbing his left ankle after rupturing a ligament having a kickabout with his soccer mates.
Spieth took everyone along for his Grand Slam-chasing ride, including McIlroy, who watched what he was missing at St. Andrews, particularly how Spieth handled the enormity of the challenge. McIlroy said he admired what he saw.
The world rankings still say McIlroy is No. 1, but Spieth is a close second with a chance to become No. 1 depending on how the PGA Championship goes starting Thursday at Whistling Straits Course.
It wasn’t long ago that professional golf felt like a solar system with two dimming suns as Woods and Phil Mickelson began heading toward their respective sunsets at roughly the same time.
McIlroy and Spieth have reinvigorated the game, and when they tee off together Thursday with Zach Johnson at 2:20 p.m. (EDT) , it’s the perfect pairing.
Who’s really No. 1?
Spieth this year, McIlroy said. Over the past two years, well. ...
“I’ll tell you at the end of the week,” McIlroy said.
Does it really matter?
That’s how good McIlroy and Spieth are individually and collectively.
After weeks of speculation about when McIlroy might resurface, he walked 72 holes over four days in Portugal last week with no pain or swelling, hopped a plane to Wisconsin and has been at Whistling Straits since Saturday, climbing the hills and dunes with no ill effects. McIlroy went for a 20-minute run Wednesday morning and says he’s good to go.
With time away from competition, McIlroy (who has two wins, including the Wells Fargo Championship and two top-10 finishes in majors this year) discovered a surprising personal truth.
“I didn’t miss it as much as I thought I would. Whether that’s a good thing or not, I don’t know,” McIlroy said.
As the swelling diminished, McIlroy’s perspective widened.
“When you’re playing week in, week out and you’re thinking about winning these tournaments, you get so wrapped up in what you’re doing and your own little life and your own little bubble, sometimes you forget there’s a wider world out there,” McIlroy said.
“No matter whether you win a golf tournament or not, people are going to get up on Monday morning and go to work and do their daily things and honestly not a lot of people care.”
In golf, perhaps the most me-first game in the world, that’s a surprising admission. The game has a consuming quality to it, especially at the level McIlroy plays it, but the down time allowed McIlroy to open the lens on his life, a trait Spieth shares.
Things will turn gritty Thursday with the wind expected to gust along the shores of Lake Michigan, where Whistling Straits and its 1,000 or so bunkers present a modern puzzle framed by steep dunes and sharp edges.
McIlroy and Spieth will go out together, but they’ll go their own ways. It’s how they’ve gotten where they are.