Rory McIlroy returns to take on pretender Spieth at the USPGA
Can the Ulsterman see off his challenger after overcoming the ankle injury that ruled him out of The Open
Rory McIlroy tees off today in the PGA Championship with the 26-year-old Northern Irishman determined to defend the title he won last year. But 12 months is a long time in golf and in the interim a new kid has been swinging his club on the block to great effect.
Jordan Spieth has won the US Masters and US Open this year, and the 22-year-old had a fair go at winning The Open last month, eventually finishing one shot behind the leading pack but demonstrating his supreme talent and maturity.
Those are qualities McIlroy possessed in abundance when he burst onto the scene in 2011 to win the US Open aged 22. Three more Major have followed but the Irishman appeared to be lacking both talent and maturity when he ruptured ankle ligaments during a football kickabout with some friends in early July. The injury cost him the chance to defend his Open title and, as CBS reports, some of golf's greybeards were unimpressed while there are those who wonder if he's fully recovered from the injury.
Tiger Woods is one of the doubters, although it could be argued that he should be concentrating on remedying his own game rather than dishing out advice to his peers. Asked if he believed McIlroy's left ankle would withstand the physical demands of the Whistling Straits course, Woods replied: "It's just a matter of how can he hold up... Is he going to be in pain? Probably, yeah. Swelling is going to probably occur."
Whistling Straits in Wisconsin has numerous steep side-hills bordering the fairways and Woods said McIlroy would have to be unerringly accurate with his drives if he wanted to avoid any rough shots that may hurt his ankle. "This is going to be a tough golf course, if you miss the ball a little bit," Woods said. "Even the walks, from tee box to fairway, they're not straight. They've got a little angulation."
McIlroy's last competitive round was at the US Open on 21 June and earlier in the week he was asked if he was confident the ankle would stand up to the test. "I'm ready to play and I expect to do well," he said, explaining that he had been tempted to defend his Bridgestone Invitational title last week but heeded the advice of his conditioning coach, Steve McGregor. "He thought it important for me to basically play a tournament behind closed doors and after I completed that successfully, it felt the right time to come."
McIlroy has been paired with Spieth and Zach Johnson for the first two rounds, a dream for fans and media alike, with the world's two most glamorous golfers going head to head.
And how does that make Johnson feel? Last month the 39-year-old Christian won The Open and in his acceptance speech quipped that he was "not exactly a poster boy". But he's a fine golfer and as he showed in the play-off at St Andrews, a man with a cool temperament. "I feel like I've experienced it all," he answered, when asked if he was prepared for the huge crowds likely to flock to McIlroy and Spieth. "I embrace that. To me, the more the merrier."