HAVEN, Wis. – Jordan Spieth didn’t want to talk about it.
Yes, he had just shot a second-round 67 to get to 6 under par, a shot behind Sweden’s David Lingmerth, and in so doing had bested the nominal No. 1 Rory McIlroy (71, 2-under) by four strokes. But what can we make of a difference of just four strokes over two days?
Maybe not much, so Spieth demurred when he was asked about all the talk about No. 1 vs. No. 2 and what we can glean from the first 36 holes.
“About?” Spieth asked.
“About No. 1 vs. No. 2, and who is No. 1,” his questioner pressed.
“Rory is ranked No. 1 in the world, so he is No. 1,” Spieth said. “I think he, for the first two days back in competition after that long layoff, he seemed to swing very freely, no restrictions. He said there were no restrictions. It’s great to have him back. We get along great.
“That’s just a ranking system, and obviously it’s a ranking system that I strive to be at the top of at some point,” he added. “As far as the first two days this week, yeah, it’s just 36 holes. He got a tough break on 18, I got a good break, and you switch those around and it’s a different story.”
True, what happened on the ridiculously hard, 526-yard, par-4 18th hole, their ninth hole of the day Friday, accounted for three of the four strokes that separated McIlroy and Spieth. It also provided a spark for Spieth, who went on to fire a 3-under 33 on the front nine.
Neither player hit the 18th green in regulation, but Spieth, from a downhill lie in the right bunker, holed his third shot for birdie. McIlroy, from a terrible lie left of the green, couldn’t get enough on his third shot to reach the putting surface, hit an indifferent chip short of the pin, and missed his bogey putt. Just like that, Spieth was in control.
“I lined up a little to the right and as I took it back just tried to kind of cut across it a bit,” Spieth said of the bunker shot on 18. “I just struck it absolutely perfectly. It was sitting nicely on top of the sand to where it was possible [to hole the shot], but no, I was not looking to make that. I would have taken a four and walked off a very, very happy guy.”
McIlroy initially said he was “annoyed” by his second-round 71, but then downgraded “annoyed” to “frustrated.” He said his left ankle, which he hurt while playing soccer with friends July 4, and which kept him out of the British Open and last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, feels fine.
“The second shot on 18 was definitely a reaction to the second shot yesterday, not wanting to miss it right, especially with that right pin,” he said. “Just double crossed it. Yeah, I was sort of in between clubs there, as well. I was trying to cut a 3-iron. Maybe should have hit a committed 4-iron and hit it in the middle of the green and taken four.”
In any event, McIlroy returned the favor with a chip in for eagle two holes later, at the par-5 second hole. In general, though, he was displeased with his short game and especially hit putting. He took 28 strokes on the greens on Friday, Spieth had just 24. “He's the prime example of someone whose game is very efficient, when he gives himself chances,” McIlroy said.
Spieth spoke glowingly of McIlroy’s long game, going so far as to call it “inspirational” and “unbelievable when he’s hitting his driver good.” As for Spieth’s driving? Not so good, he said. Even though he got the better of McIlroy, the young Texan said he was having trouble getting off the tee.
“I’m hitting some quick draws when I’m playing a normal shot, which is weird,” Spieth said after hitting eight of 14 fairways. “I haven’t had that this whole year, so I was kind of just trying to guide the ball off the tee.”
It’s early yet—in both the tournament and their careers. McIlroy is 26, Spieth just 22, so their tournament within the tournament—with the No. 1 ranking in the balance—will continue into the weekend and for years to come. If the first two rounds here are any indication, we’re in for a treat.