SOUTHPORT, England — Jordan Spieth is the kid in class who obtains the course syllabus over the summer so he can read all the textbooks before` the start of the school year and who never turns down an extra-credit assignment.
Rory McIlroy is the kid with the photographic memory who finishes his research papers the morning they are due and who makes acing tests look effortless.
Each is riveting in his own way. Both have a strong stage presence, but neither pretends to be anything — starting with invulnerable — that he isn’t.
“There’s a lot of roads to get there,” Spieth said Sunday night at the 146th British Open regarding his success in the majors. He was contrasting his low-stress final-round 70 at the 2015 Masters with his high-wire 69 on Sunday at Royal Birkdale, but he could have been talking about the approaches of the two players locked in perhaps the most compulsive contest in men’s golf.
It would be easy to frame the rivalry between McIlroy and Spieth as the millennial version of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, with McIlroy cast in Palmer’s role as the swashbuckling feel player, a showman who sees the course as his stage; and Spieth as Nicklaus’ strait-laced technician, a statistician who treats the course like a spreadsheet.
But neither the 28-year-old McIlroy nor the 23-year-old Spieth is striving to be the next Palmer or Nicklaus, never mind the next Tiger Woods, the 14-time major winner whose career has become the yardstick by which every player’s strides are measured.
In 2000, at age 24, Woods became the fifth player to complete a men’s career grand slam, joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Nicklaus. Golf is a long-distance race, which was borne out by the participation in this year’s British Open of 60-year-old Mark O’Meara. But Spieth’s stirring victory Sunday turned men’s golf into a mad sprint to the finish to see who will be the next player to join that elite fraternity.
McIlroy has been knocking on the clubhouse door since he won the 2014 British Open and pulled within a Masters victory of becoming a member. In three subsequent trips to Augusta National, McIlroy, a four-time major winner, has finished in the top 10 each time but has not seriously flirted with winning.
The PGA Championship is the major trophy missing from Spieth’s mantle. His first shot at completing a career slam will come next month at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, North Carolina, the site of McIlroy’s first PGA Tour victory, in 2009. Spieth, who finished second at the 2015 PGA Championship, described the career slam as “a life goal.”
He said: “Things have happened very quickly. And it’s good and bad because a lot comes with it. A lot more attention versus just being able to kind of go about your own thing. And I never realized how underrated that was. I wanted to be in this position, but then, you know, here and there it becomes harder when it doesn’t go your way. And you’re harder on yourself because you expect so much.”
Those words could have been uttered by McIlroy, who surrendered his social media accounts to his wife, Erica, after he missed the cut at the U.S. Open so he could avoid being drawn into — and dragged down by — a constant barrage of criticism. Woods gives the impression that he does not care what the public says or thinks about him. For all their swagger, Spieth and McIlroy cannot pull off Woods’ nonchalance. They don’t even try. After a closing 67 on Sunday propelled him into a tie for fourth with Rafael Cabrera-Bello, McIlroy defended his 10-major victory drought.
“You look at Jack Nicklaus, he went through a stretch where he didn’t win a major in three years,” McIlroy said. “I’m not comparing myself to Jack. It’s hard to win them. It’s very hard. It’s the reason, especially in this generation, excluding Tiger, no one’s got above five.”
McIlroy also spoke about Spieth, who at the time was out on the course digging a crater-size hole on the first 13 holes that he clawed out of on the final five. “He’s a fighter,” McIlroy said. “He’s shown that the whole way through his short career.”
Spieth showed determination, guts and skill in overtaking Matt Kuchar after tumbling below him on the leaderboard after a messy, majestic bogey on the 13th. Those were the same qualities that McIlroy exhibited in winning his first major, the 2011 U.S. Open, two months after he coughed up the Masters lead with a final-round 80.
On Friday at Royal Birkdale, Spieth had a late tee time, allowing him to watch some of McIlroy’s round of 68. His impression? “It’s very difficult to hit the ball like Rory McIlroy,” he said.
Their different approaches were clearly delineated the next day in the way each played the par-4 10th. Rather than aim for the left side of the fairway, McIlroy took a bold line. And he used his 3-iron off the tee instead of laying up with a 4- or 5-iron. His shot landed in one of the right bunkers that his aggressiveness had brought into play, and his next shot landed on the lip of an adjacent bunker. With an awkward stance for his third shot, he pulled it left of the green, setting up a double bogey.
Later in the day, Spieth explained his reasoning for laying back on the hole, where he escaped with a par. He said that finding the fairway, no matter how far he had to the green, was the key to commanding a birdie opportunity. “I thought it was easier to do that, especially without wind, to trust your shot and know that it’s not going to roll too far, which made it a lot easier off the tee,” Spieth said.
Different approaches for different personalities. One drives by the book; the other from the seat of his pants. It is what makes Spieth and McIlroy going after the same piece of golf history one of the best stories in sport.