Spieth and McIlroy to duel in Abu Dhabi, whether it matters or not
By Dan O'Neill
ST. LOUIS – It's January in St. Louis, hard to get your arms around golf. Maybe if we spend $10 million HOK could draw us a picture. Better yet, maybe we should turn our attention to the Persian Gulf.
The Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship tees it up Thursday in the United Arab Emirates. With European Tour ramifications, the event has some credibility. But it also has a "silly season" feel, in a Hero World Challenge sort of way. You almost expect Mr. Roarke and Tattoo to be there, greeting players as they arrive on "da plane."
There will be unusual photo-ops, exotic backgrounds, a $2.7 million purse and a healthy number of top players. But what makes Abu Dhabi doubly compelling this week is what makes this golf season especially intriguing – the possibilities.
Never mind the presence of talent like Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose. Never mind 10 major championship winners and 126 players from 26 countries. The golfing press is going Don King on this. This is Jordan Spieth vs. Rory McIlroy, the "Duke-out in the Desert."
No question, it's cosmetic and presumptuous. There won't be any lines drawn in the Abu Dhabi sand. Events in January aren't where gauntlets get thrown, statements get made or rivalries get cemented. One should never confuse the Abu Dhabi Golf Club with Augusta National, Oakmont, Royal Troon or Baltusrol – the host sites of this year's four majors.
Relatively new to the No. 1 ranking in golf, Spieth will be making his Abu Dhabi debut, coming off an eight-stroke win in Hawaii two weeks ago. Currently No. 3, McIlroy has been an Abu Dhabi regular but never a winner. In 2014, a year in which he would win the British Open and PGA championships consecutively, McIlroy started by finishing second at Abu Dhabi to Pablo Larrazabal. That's "Larrazabal," two "r"s, one "z."
Last year, arriving with No. 1 status, McIlroy was second to Gary Stal, a Frenchman who currently checks in at No. 136 on the rankings billboard. Point is, what happens in Abu Dhabi pretty much stays in Abu Dhabi. In terms of separating men from boys, it's not a standard that resonates.
Moreover, we all know better. The mere fact two premier players enter the same championship doesn't guarantee they will arm-wrestle for the trophy. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have been considered top rivals over the past two decades. Since 1996, they have combined to win 19 major championships. In those 19 wins, the adversary also finished top five only six times.
The only time Woods and Mickelson have finished 1-2 in a major was the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage. Woods had a four-shot lead going into the final round and won by three over Mickelson, who played in the second-to-last pairing.
All that said, the big picture doesn't matter. Golf fans can anticipate a Spieth-McIlroy showdown at Abu Dhabi, they can discuss how they match up, and that's half the fun. An "Abu Dhabi Donnybrook" is possible – that puts juice into this week and the weeks to follow.
And yes, those conversations have room for Fowler, Stenson or Rose, they can accommodate Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Patrick Reed and so on. The PGA Tour used to be a small pond with one big catfish. But with Woods on the sidelines, with his future uncertain, things are not so one-dimensional. There is a real contest going on, an unpredictability, and McIlroy is especially germane.
A year ago he was Spieth, the player people talked about. Coming off the consecutive majors, owning four majors at age 25, McIlroy was Woods in waiting, the chosen one.
Things changed rapidly. Directly in the headlights, McIlroy backed off. He started slowly in 2015, got injured playing soccer and got pushed out by the Spieth Spectacular. But of all the names on golf's war room board, none has more credibility.
If he is healthy, focused and motivated, the 26-year old from Northern Ireland is a dangerous man, and Spieth is the first to say so.
Speaking of McIlroy, Spieth told the Associated Press: "In a season that he considered lost, (McIlroy) still came back and ended up winning the Race to Dubai, the final event. It proves what a player he is. I'm sure there's very few people working harder than he is to make this season his best season yet, which is scary. Hopefully, I can help prevent that to an extent."
On the flip side, McIlroy knows Spieth has his hands full this year, operating under the hot lamps of examination and expectation, wearing a top ranking and a $22 million season everywhere he goes.
It takes one to know one. "It will feel completely different for Jordan," McIlroy recently told The Telegraph.
Case in point, Spieth already has been zinged by the attention. When he recently signed a massive endorsement deal with Coke, those who link sugary soft drinks to childhood obesity dropped the "role model" card. That's the kind of scrutiny that will follow the 22-year-old Spieth all year.
This week's event is another example. Halfway around the world or not, this will be the first time the elephants are in the room, the former No. 1 and the latest No. 1. Perhaps they won't go head to head, perhaps months from now no one will remember.
But in a cold January in St. Louis, it would be fun to see them go at it.
This article was written by Dan O'Neill from St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.