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Rivalry? No, Rory McIlroy is this generation's top talent

By the conclusion of his Players Championship week, which came to a premature end that Friday afternoon, Jordan Spieth seemed exasperated by the comparisons.

The week had started with him playing in the same stroke-play field as Rory McIlroy for the first time since Spieth's win at the Masters. Two talented young players, two major champions, two men ranked above everyone else in the world. The easy narrative followed: People started talking about a rivalry.

Upon missing the Players cut, Spieth, 21, was asked an innocuous question about life in the spotlight. Perhaps already conditioned to believe every query was an indirect nudge toward that narrative, he volunteered yet another rebuttal: "I don't believe in this whole rivalry. I don't believe that I'm on his level yet. Rory McIlroy, his career is far ahead of any other young player around, including myself."

Apparently, McIlroy agrees with that sentiment.

After finishing up a course-record 11-under 61 on Saturday that rendered the Wells Fargo Championship final round a mere coronation, the world's No. 1-ranked player offered his usual brand of refreshing honesty.

Sitting in the CBS television tower after his record-setting performance, McIlroy, 26, deflected the notion that he's still young and that any of the players who are still young reside anywhere close to his stratosphere.

"There's a lot of talk about the young guns," he said, "but I feel like the best player in the world right now and I wanted to prove that."

In the demure world of golf, that's the equivalent of trash talk. It was his Muhammad Ali "I am the greatest" moment. It might have signaled a major declaration for McIlroy, but it left the rest of us without a new storyline.

There's no rivalry among golf's top players yet? We knew that already, or we should have known that, if we listened to Spieth downplay such a suggestion. McIlroy's A-game is better than everyone else's? We knew that, too -- his seven-stroke win Sunday was only the third-largest margin of his career, and the other two happened at majors. The game's best player has an innate ability to get on massive hot streaks? Yet again, something we already knew, lest we forget last year's Summer of Rory, during which he won two majors and a WGC event in three consecutive starts.

So maybe we didn't learn anything new while witnessing McIlroy's dominant performance this past weekend, but we should be thankful for the reminder.

With so many other special players claiming big tourneys this year, it had become easy to rationalize McIlroy's play toward the negative. He hadn't won a PGA Tour stroke-play event since last year. (His other win, just two weeks ago, came at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play.) His only win came on the European Tour. (He prevailed at the Dubai Desert Classic, which offered nearly as many world-ranking points as Spieth's win in Tampa.)

Those looking for holes in McIlroy's results, though, might have found them only in relation to the game's previous most dominant player. Comparisons to Tiger Woods are unfair at best and futile at worst; they immediately rob McIlroy of the impact and dominance he's currently enjoying.

But maybe that is the one takeaway from his 11th career PGA Tour victory. Rather than searching for a lone rival, McIlroy is proving to be this generation's top talent. Years from now, when they've all traded in their rigid game faces for the mercy of the Senior Tour, McIlroy's numbers could be similar, if not as appreciable, to those of Woods in a sport that is growing much deeper seemingly with each week.

And maybe Spieth will prove to be McIlroy's Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler his Ernie Els -- worthy foils, just not worthy of being hailed as rivals.

We won't figure any of this out for a long time, of course, which is what makes the debate so alluring right now.

Too often we're quick to declare something a rivalry; too often, we think we've learned something when, really, we've just connected a small puzzle piece to a much larger picture. That's what is happening so far this year -- these small pieces are helping to reveal a picture still years from being fully visualized.