I have tried and failed to consider all 156 golfers in the field this week at the PGA Championship. I’ve gone deep on Tony Finau, riffed on Brooks Koepka’s chances to win two in a year and even picked Jon Rahm. But no matter what research I do or which players I coax myself into choosing, I keep coming back to the only two that matter this week: Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth.
of the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. At the time, they held three of the four major championship trophies. They were a combined 48 years old with six majors between them. I wrote then about how different their paths were to the same destination. Rory, a fun-loving bomber who who had to train himself to bury careers. Jordan, a serious-beyond-his-years wizard who talked like a p.m. radio host on the course.
Rory is majestic. Jordan is, uh, not majestic.
“He has got that knack,” said McIlroy. “I call it resilience. I don’t know if there’s a better word to describe what it is that he has. But he has got this resilience where he gets himself in positions in tournaments where you don’t think he can come back from, and he does. It’s awfully impressive.
“Yeah, resilience, mentally tough, strong, whatever you want to call it. That’s his biggest asset. Being able to forget about a bad shot and move on to the next one, that’s his greatest weapon.”
Their presumed paths have not moved since that 2015 PGA. And to prove my point about their differences ending in so much similarity, consider this stat. Through their first 113 events on the PGA Tour as professionals, McIlroy had 11 wins and four majors. Spieth had 11 wins and three majors.
They can become the youngest and fourth-youngest to the career Slam over the next two majors. They can join a club of only five golfers in history who have won all four of the big ones in the next two majors. They are impossibly good at preposterous ages.
It would be incorrect to say this year’s PGA Championship means more than any of the other majors from the past five years or the next five years. Majors are majors, and you’re trying to stack them in any manner possible. However, this one does feel like it could alter the trajectory of history more than most. If Spieth wins, all of a sudden he’s run down potentially the best European golfer of all time at the age of 24, and this generation has a legitimate debate about which golfer is its greatest.
Of course, that might happen anyway at some point, but for Spieth to do it in conjunction with winning the Grand Slam on McIlroy’s adopted home turf at Quail Hollow would be akin to him flaming Camp McIlroy and watching it burn while sipping tea from the Claret Jug. This tournament runs right through the heart of what McIlroy is about. Otherworldly drives, twirling approaches and run-home putts on a spacious park like Quail Hollow. This tournament, for better or worse, is who McIlroy is. Spieth tying the score here would be an affront that could shape the way the next decade goes.
On the other hand, if McIlroy thwarts him and takes a 2-up lead in majors going into 2018, history will be rewritten the other way. Suddenly, we have to think about McIlroy’s place among the all-timers. He will have been just the fourth golfer to win five majors before turning 30 (Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Bobby Jones) with a shot at No. 6 before turning 29 (!) next April at Spieth’s east coast home of Augusta.
You can see why this week at Quail Hollow means so much.
To their credit, both golfers have made it less about each other and even their respective places in history than about winning a single tournament in a single week. They both mentioned each other in their pressers and praised the other’s game but widened the lens on the sport. It’s not about them to them, but it kind of is to us.
“I think it’s cool that we’ve both had the success that we’ve had at such a young age, and I think the coolest part about it is the question of, what’s it going to be like for the next 20, 25 years,” said Spieth. “And that’s kind of what is the exciting part when we think about it, too. We’re friendly with each other and really want each other to do well because it does push each other, just like all these young players in the game. It’s not two of us; it’s really 8-10 right now.”
There is an undercurrent in this sport right now that runs just beneath the surface of every big event. We are watching stars and superstars every single week. But we are likely only watching two all-timers, and everyone knows it.
They have bobbed and weaved their way through majors, mostly avoiding one another on the weekends. This is the downside of how golf works. In tennis, you get Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer matched up quite often in the big boy events. In golf, it’s rare to get a pair of transcendent players having elite weeks and diving into a weekend of chaos at the highest level of the sport.
We got that with Matt Kuchar and Spieth at The Open this year. We got it with Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson at The Open last year. We sort of got it with Spieth and Rory at the 2016 Masters as the two were paired together in the last tee time in Round 3, but McIlroy faded and Spieth drowned himself in Rae’s Creek on Sunday.
Often these duels contain two golfers in different groups on Sunday. So they’re going at it but not tangibly on the course — only on the leaderboard. That’s why we remember the Mickelson-Stenson type of duels. With the influx of outrageously good players, they’re becoming an endangered species.
That’s why it would be such a delight to watch a couple of alphas spar with 3-irons on a track that only suits one of them. It would be enthralling to consumer the uber-intense Spieth jawing at Michael Greller and anyone who would even pretend like they’re listening as McIlroy simply and silently strutted around Quail Hollow.
They’re so different.
So as I prep for the 20th major of my career and consider all the permutations and combinations of what could happen this week, only one keeps popping in my head: I hope we get a weekend of Spieth and McIlroy trading 65s with the rest of the field in their wake.
“If you’re matched up on Sunday, and you get to choose somebody, you know, you obviously want to be able to play against somebody like Rory who has four major championships and is one of the top couple most accomplished players in this field,” said Spieth on Wednesday. “But he is one to fear in that position because of what he’s capable of doing and how he’s going to do it.”
I hope we get two generationally-great golfers standing on the 10th tee on Sunday, five clear of the world with nine reshaped holes in front of them as they try and alter the future. I hope we get Rory bucking his damn head while Spieth bats it around all over the city. I hope we get a couple of hop-step struts off tee boxes from Rory and Spieth running after his approaches. I hope Rory eagles No. 15 and tells Spieth, “Go get that.” I hope Spieth laughs and does the same to him.
That’s a lot to ask for, I know, but these two have already given so much. We will never again be at this intersection in the time and space of this specific golf world. Augusta is eight months away, and a lot can change. A lot can happen. Players can get injured and lose their feels and not have the goods going into April. Right now, though, Rory is coming off back-to-back top fives and Spieth has won two of his last three. Right now, at this course at this time they are barreling straight for one another at historical paces. Rory has had this one circled for forever. Spieth circles them all.
Just one time I want to watch two of the best ever with their best stuff on the biggest stage. We never got a real Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson shootout. I hope we don’t go another decade without getting one from Spieth and Rory. And if it happens this week and history is changed, I promise I’ll never ask for it again.
Until the 2018 Masters. And the 2018 U.S. Open.