Spieth right to see McIlroy as the man to beat at the US PGA Championship

Even though the American has the confidence of winning the British Open in July, the Northern Irishman's record at Quail Hollow makes him the man to watch for.

August 4, 2017; Akron, OH, USA; Jordan Spieth (right) shakes hands with Rory McIlroy (left) on the 18th hole after the second round of the WGC - Bridgestone Invitational golf tournament at Firestone Country Club - South Course. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Powered by automated translation

Two weeks on from Jordan Spieth reestablishing himself as golf’s guy to beat, Jordan Spieth chose to anoint Rory McIlroy as golf’s guy to beat instead.

"I would say Rory's probably the guy to beat at this point next week,” said the recently minted British Open champion on Sunday, having played a couple of rounds alongside McIlroy at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

McIlroy did not win around Firestone - Hideki Matsuyama did to suggest he could soon vie for that space at the game's summit - but in posting a second successive top five and finishing three shots better off than Spieth, the Northern Irishman had apparently laid down a marker ahead of this week’s US PGA Championship.

More from John McAuley

The year’s final major, it takes place at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, on one of McIlroy’s favourite tracks. Hence the favourite tag.

"I played with him the first two days," Spieth continued. "And the way he is driving the ball, if he continues to do it there, he just has a massive advantage over the field at that point."

Spieth was right to be impressed with McIlroy’s form off the tee at Firestone, considering he bombed 52 drives beyond 300 yards - a tournament record.

Or perhaps the American was simply deflecting attention from his bid this week to become the youngest player in history to achieve the career grand slam.

Three weeks on from the British Open and two weeks on from his 24th birthday, Spieth could surpass the mark set by Tiger Woods in 2000. In doing so, he would cement his position as golf’s guy to beat for the foreseeable future.

Quite the storyline - in fact the dominant one going into the PGA Championship - maybe Spieth was merely indulging in mind games, even if just a little. Hype up McIlroy, play down his own chances.

McIlroy, though, did not seem too bothered.

“If I’m the favourite, I’m the favourite,” he said on Sunday. “I’m happy with that. Means I’m playing well. Much different than how I went into my last major. It’s amazing what two weeks can do, but such is life.”

Life at Quail Hollow has been good to him. It was there at the 2010 Wells Fargo Championship that McIlroy broke his PGA Tour duck and announced himself to the American audience.

Since then, he registered a second victory - this time, by seven shots - finished second in a play-off to Rickie Fowler and has another three top 10s. He has carded a 61 and a 62. Evidently, McIlroy is a horse for that particular course.

Spieth, on the other hand, is not. In his only appearance to date at Quail Hollow, he finished tied-32nd in 2014, although that came before his three majors and before the barely believable at Royal Birkdale, where he proved he can win anywhere, in any fashion.

More broadly, it plays to a long-yearned-for narrative: that finally, the McIlroy-Spieth rivalry can ignite.

An injury sustained playing football deprived us of that in 2015, when McIlroy was defending champion at the British Open and Spieth was chasing a third major on the bounce. But McIlroy ruptured his ankle ligaments and could not make St Andrew’s - one of two major venues he believes is tailor made for him.

The other? Quail Hollow, despite its recent renovation, or irrespective of the fact he comes into a second event and a first major without caddie JP Fitzgerald on his bag.

The decision to end that professional relationship so close to the PGA Championship speaks to McIlroy’s confidence around Quail Hollow.

He excels on the course, and he excels on courses that play long and soft. His four major victories thus far have come at rain-affected venues; Quail Hollow has been pelted with precipitation all week.

Of course, in golf it can be folly to champion one player’s chances, especially with Spieth gunning for the grand slam and the current depth of talent in the game.

But if Spieth is bidding for history, at Quail Hollow McIlroy has history on his side. Maybe for this week at least, he really is golf’s guy to beat.