They don’t make eras like they used to.
This time last year the golf world was busy feting Rory McIlroy, who had established himself as the game’s undisputed boy king. McIlroy, now 26, was such a dominant force that the big question was whether any other young players would step up to challenge him, or if he’d run roughshod over the sport. We now know the answer.
What’s stunning about golf’s current state of affairs is how much McIlroy’s standing has been diminished. Even though he made a brief cameo atop the World Ranking a few weeks ago, he is plainly only the third-best player in the game right now. (Fowler loyalists might say Rory is only the fourth best, but we’re not gonna go there just yet.)
Jordan Spieth began altering the landscape by doing what McIlroy has famously been unable to -- solve Augusta National. His win there, and at the dust bowl that was Chambers Bay, highlighted the primary difference between these two awesome talents: Spieth’s superiority around the greens, which allows him to conquer firm, fast setups. Such speedy conditions have never quite agreed with McIlroy, which is inconvenient given that the lords of Augusta, Far Hills and St. Andrews all strive to achieve them for their championships. (The dons of Palm Beach Gardens have reluctantly accepted that August is not ideal for pushing a golf course to the limit, especially given their predilection for hot-weather venues.)
There was a pleasing contrast in the budding Jordan-Rory rivalry: an intense scoring machine versus an insouciant ball-basher. But Jason Day has of late added a new wrinkle by putting like Spieth while driving it like McIlroy. Just when Jordanmania had taken hold, and it looked like this could be his era and not Rory’s, Day has arrived as a man in full. In his Sunday showdown with Spieth at the PGA Championship, the 27-year-old Aussie simply had more firepower. He’s been too injury-prone for anyone to declare this the beginning of the Day Era, but he’s certainly a tantalizing addition in the rarified air at the top of the World Ranking. Day also has the advantage of being more settled off the course. Marriage and kids, and all the associated complications, are likely in the future for both Spieth and McIlroy. Day, an old soul thanks to a hard-knock upbringing, has already mastered the juggling act of being a touring pro and doting dad and devoted hubby.
If we can assume that the relentless Spieth is going to keep doing more of what he’s been doing, the really interesting question is where McIlroy goes from here. While he is physically recovered from the worst-timed kickabout in golf history, mentally it looks like he’s just not that into it. The front-nine 40 on Friday at Augusta was dispiriting, but he rallied with a strong spring, taking the Match Play and then, lest we have all forgotten, waltzing to a seven-shot victory in Charlotte, thanks to a Saturday 61.
But McIlroy played indifferently at the U.S. Open and seemed just the tiniest bit offended at how quickly the golf world forgot about him, as Spieth chased the Grand Slam. Missing the British Open was the worst luck imaginable. A golfer gets only two or three chances to tackle the Old Course in his prime, and to spend this Open on his couch was surely wrenching for McIlroy. Since he’s returned to action, he’s been scratching around for his old confidence and a little bit of form. Both have been slow in coming. At the Deutsche Bank -- where a Friday 74 ruined his chances at victory -- McIlroy said he was taking the long view and that the ascension of Spieth and Day will only help him by forcing him to raise his game. “When [I’m] playing [my] best and everything sort of clicks together,” he said, “I don’t feel like there’s anyone that can beat me.”
That was surely true a year ago. Now? We shall see. McIlroy remains a preeminent talent, and there’s no doubting his drive to become one of the all-time greats. Yet this rough season has made it clear that, going forward, it won’t be quite so easy for him to own the game.
This article appeared in the most recent issue of SI Golf+ Digital, our weekly e-magazine. Click here to read this week's issue and sign up for a free subscription.