A Spieth-McIlroy rivalry a dream, not reality

Jordan Spieth could overtake Rory McIlroy as the No. 1 player in the world this weekend at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, but will they become true golf rivals? History tells us it's unlikely. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Two months ago, in his pre-tournament news conference at the U.S. Open, Rory McIlroy was asked what he thought about LeBron James declaring himself the No. 1 basketball player in the world. Did McIlroy think it was arrogant to express such an opinion? Or as the world's top-ranked golfer, could he relate at all?

"I think when LeBron talks about that, that's not confidence, that's a fact," McIlroy said. "If you look at the numbers, you can really see he is the best player in the world. And I guess for me, I feel the same way when I look at the world rankings and I see my name up at the top. If you look back at the last four or five years, I guess I've won more majors than anyone else in that time period. So do I feel like the best player in the world? Yes."

A lot has changed since that June news conference near Seattle. Jordan Spieth won the U.S. Open with a dramatic birdie on the 72nd hole, his second major of the year. McIlroy ruptured ligaments in his left ankle while playing soccer with friends, forcing him to withdraw from The Open at St. Andrews and this week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he is the defending champion. Spieth won the John Deere Classic, his fourth victory this year. Then Spieth finished 1 stroke out of a playoff at The Open, ending his bid for a Grand Slam, but pushing his earnings for the season past the $9 million mark.

Spieth will play the Bridgestone, setting up the possibility that he could overtake McIlroy in the rankings.

But today, McIlroy is still the No. 1-ranked player in the world (by a slim margin). Whether he's still the best player in the world is no longer a fact, but a rich subject for debate.

It's unclear when McIlroy might return from his ankle injury, whether he'll make it back in time to defend his title at the PGA Championship next week or if the injury will linger into the fall. But if Spieth wins this week, or if he merely maintains his strong play with McIlroy out, we could have a new No. 1 player in the world for the first time in a year.

What seemed like a friendly, but brazen declaration by Spieth after he won the Masters -- I'm not in your league just yet, but I'm coming for the king -- is suddenly on the cusp of becoming a reality.

What happens now has the potential to be fascinating ... or, to be frank, unfulfilling.

Golf rivalries, throughout history, have rarely matched up in the black and white the way they do in other sports. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird shared a court and traded baskets, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier shared a ring and traded punches, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe hit lasers at one another from across the net and Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell tussled over the same space under the same rim 142 times. The potential has always been there in golf for titans to face off in a dramatic final-round duel; it just happens much less frequently than we'd like.

For all the fanfare over the rivalry between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, the truth remains that they "dueled" one another in the final round of only two majors, the 1960 U.S. Open (when Palmer came from seven strokes behind to beat Nicklaus, then a 20-year-old amateur) and 1962 U.S. Open (when Nicklaus beat Palmer in an 18-hole Monday playoff). Nicklaus and Tom Watson had an equally celebrated rivalry throughout the '70s, but they produced only two memorable duels: the 1977 British Open at Turnberry, and the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Even Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, as much as we longed for a rivalry to emerge, were paired together just once in the final round of a major that resulted in a victory for either player, the 2001 Masters won by Woods.

Unlike Mickelson and Woods, there's no animosity between McIlroy and Spieth. They're friendly, but not close friends. They represent rival golf apparel companies -- Nike and Under Armour, respectively -- but each make tons of money to carve out their share of the market. Their age gap, four years, is just big enough that they have no competitive history against each other, even in junior events. Spieth even tried to downplay the notion he'd done enough in his career to even make it a conversation just yet.

"I don't think much of a rivalry," Spieth said. "I've said that from the beginning. Rory has four majors and dozens of wins, and I'm just starting out. Again, I'm certainly quite a bit younger than he is. I'm just happy to have this and to be chasing that No. 1 spot which he holds. So I'm certainly focused on that."

It's still hard to resist fantasizing about the two of them wrestling for trophies and green jackets over the next two decades, in part because, while they're both known for their candor and their sportsmanship, their strengths on the course make for such an interesting contrast. McIlroy drives the ball with such precision and power and hits such towering iron shots that there's no course he can't overpower from tee to green. But he's a streaky putter and below-average wedge player, two areas that happen to be Spieth's greatest strengths. McIlroy's swing is as gorgeous, and textbook perfect, as any in the history of the game. Spieth's swing is quirky -- he's one of the few players on tour with a slight bend in his left elbow at the top of his backswing -- but it's arguably more consistent than McIlroy's.

"I think that's just the way I'm going to be," McIlroy said before the U.S. Open about missing cuts at the Honda Classic and Irish Open. "I'd rather in a six-tournament period have three wins and three missed cuts than six top-10s. Volatility in golf is actually a good thing. If your good weeks are really good, it far outweighs the bad weeks."

PGA Tour players, in private conversations, remain fairly firm in their belief that McIlroy is the more talented player. The shots he hits, in terms of the pure talent required, are the closest thing we've seen to Tiger Woods in his prime. He takes lines off the tee, and goes for greens in two, that Spieth can only dream about.

But Spieth's knack for rising to the moment in the past three majors is hard to ignore. Golf isn't about how gorgeous your trajectory looks off the tee; it's about getting the ball in the hole in the least amount of strokes.

McIlroy, for all his talent, has admitted that his motivation tends to wane at times. He's already stated that he's unlikely to play competitive rounds into his 40s. But he expressed both of those sentiments prior to the spring and summer, when Spieth emerged as a true challenger to his reign.

By the time McIlroy's ankle is fully healed -- whether it's at Whistling Straits for the PGA Championship, or beyond that -- it's likely he'll find himself as the hunter instead of the hunted for the first time in a long time. The game of golf, though, may be even better for it.