A note of caution towards the escalating hype surrounding Jordan Spieth arrived at Sawgrass on Wednesday from Bernhard Langer, a player who has seen and done it all before.
Spieth’s pairing with Rory McIlroy for rounds one and two of the Players Championship has only heightened fevered discussion about the sport’s new, supposedly enduring rivalry. For the first time, the duo will play together as the top two in the world.
Perhaps naturally in his native United States, Spieth is the darling of the public but could expectation outstrip reality? “Well, there’s always a danger of that,” said Langer, a two-times Masters champion and a former world No1. “We have seen it happen with many players that have been called the next Jack Nicklaus or the next Arnold Palmer or now the next Tiger Woods.
“There’s always a danger of that. It’s a tremendous burden in a sense. It’s a great honour to be thrown in the mix of some of these names but at the same time every time he goes out there he knows what’s expected from him, from you [the media], from the public, and that’s not easy. If he stays healthy and maintains the focus, I think he will be one of the top players for a number of years to come. Is he the one? Not certain of that. We have a lot of talent, there’s a whole bunch of others that could compete at very much the same level.
“If Rory stays healthy in the way he swings, it’s going to be hard to beat him if his putter stays hot. But he [Spieth] is certainly in the mix of those guys that can be challenging for the No1 spot for many years in a row.”
Spieth’s terrific short game partly offsets the gulf in distance off the tee between him and McIlroy. Yet the Northern Irishman’s technique is infinitely better than the 21-year-old Texan’s, a crucial point where longevity is concerned.
To be fair to Spieth, he is not doing anything to stoke the fire. The Masters champion pointed out here that he is the same distance from No9 in the rankings as he is from McIlroy, who set himself apart once again with victory on Sunday in San Francisco.
With a smile, but offering an important message, McIlroy recalled the supposed long-term battle he was to have with Rickie Fowler last season. “It doesn’t really do anything for me,” he said of the external debate. “I’m pretty much paying attention to myself out there. There’s going to be a bit more buzz around the group and a bit more excitement but I’m out there and I’m focusing on my own game.”
Spieth said: “As far as a rivalry goes, [on Sunday] he moved even further away from it really being what I would consider a budding rivalry right now. I could certainly appreciate if I could get to where he’s at but right now I don’t see myself there. It’s kind of anybody’s game to get up there and make it interesting with him. I just happen to be the one that occupies No2 right now but it’s very close behind that, so I would like to spread myself out a little bit.”
Jason Day, the world No7 and third player in this Sawgrass grouping has been almost lost in the pre-tournament melee. “I’m very excited about the pairing with Rory and Jason,” Spieth said. “I’ve really enjoyed my time playing with both of them.
“I really haven’t battled it out on the weekend with either one of them – two obviously extremely accomplished players and guys I look up to, a couple of the nicest guys out here. So it’s going to be pretty wild out there. I think we’re all going to embrace it and have a good time with it. This is the first two rounds of a golf tournament. Obviously every shot is as important as the next and as important as the ones that are late on Sunday. But at the same time the first two rounds are about getting yourself in position. So, I wouldn’t look much into any kind of rivalry that we may be trying to have in the first few rounds with all three of us, because we’re trying to get ourselves just into position to win.”
Spieth reflected on the aftermath of his Masters win with the admission that events outside the ropes have altered more than what goes on inside them. Apart, that is, from an increased belief in his ability to hole putts under intense pressure. “Off the course it’s quite a bit different,” he said. “Being pulled into different directions, learning to say ‘no’ and that you just can’t please everybody. The sooner I realise that, the easier it’s going to be for me to stick to my work. It is demanding a lot and I’m trying to learn a new level of time management.”
McIlroy conceded “frustrating” is the one word that springs instantly to mind when considering this course. He missed the cut on his first three visits to Sawgrass, followed by eighth and sixth-placed finishes in 2013 and 2014.
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