Spieth vs. McIlroy: Golf’s next great rivalry?

Rory McIlroy, 25, and Jordan Spieth, 21, are the top two players in the Official World Golf Rankings. (Rob Carr/Getty)

While the truest rivalry in golf is the player versus the course, any sport needs something with a little more pizzazz. Sure, Jordan Spieth pummelled Augusta National, but who (if anyone) will be his human nemesis, his living, breathing kryptonite, his Ernst Stavro Blofeld?

Ever since Willie Park Sr. beat Old Tom Morris and then called out Allan Robertson (a challenge that was declined) in 1853, golf has thrived on rivalries.

Slightly more recently, we had the reign of the “Big Five” — Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen. During a span of a few years early this century, they took turns revolving through the top five spots in the world ranking. Indeed, Singh knocked Woods out of the No. 1 spot for 32 weeks in 2004-2005.

Theirs was the continuation of a proud tradition in golf, one that Spieth, 21, now must shoulder against some formidable opposition, many of whom are still in their 20s or very early 30s. Foremost among that number is, of course, Rory McIlroy, 25. (For the first time since the world rankings were established 30 years ago, the world’s top two players are 25 and under.)

“Rory has got four majors and numerous wins,” Spieth said in answer to a question after donning (his first) green jacket. “That’s something I can still only dream about. I’ll never hit it as far as he does and I have to make up for that somewhere else. I look forward to getting in the heat of the moment with him a couple times in the near future and see if we can battle it out and test our games.”

But Spieth has some things McIlroy doesn’t — that aforementioned green jacket among them. And those things, while disparate, are not lesser in the final analysis of the “somewhere else” he mentioned. While the two share an uncanny ability to reel off birdies with astounding frequency, their games couldn’t be much more different. On average, McIlroy drives the ball much farther, more accurately and hits more greens. But Spieth’s Tour-leading scoring average is about half a stroke better than Rory’s. His game is so much more than the sum of its various parts. He just knows how to win.

And that makes golf fans salivate for the opportunity to see them paired in the final group Sunday at a major. To reach back for a parallel, how about Paul Runyan versus Sam Snead in the final of the 1937 PGA Championship (a match-play event until 1957)? Despite being outdriven by as much as 75 yards by Snead, Runyan throttled his rival 8&7. If anyone is hearing footsteps, it might be Rory.

Spieth strikes me as the kind of young man who not only demonstrates otherworldly maturity on the course, but who understands “the game” in its totality. Like his fellow Texan, Ben Crenshaw (who just played his 44th and final Masters after winning in 1984 and 1995), I think Spieth knows and appreciates the history, the context, the complexity of golf.

“He plays the golf course like someone with far more experience, like he’s been here for years and years, and that helps,” Crenshaw observed last week. “It’s not how many times you’ve played it; it’s how well you understand it.” Or, as I tweeted last week:

When he looks in the mirror, does Spieth see the ghosts of great golf rivals and the place he and his eventually may hold in that pantheon?

How about “The Great Triumvirate,” Harry Vardon, J.H. Taylor and James Braid, who between them won 16 of the 21 Open Championships from 1894 to 1914? Following them were heated and sustained battles among superstars like Snead, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan.

We can’t overlook Palmer/Nicklaus, Nicklaus/Watson, Nicklaus/Trevino, and let’s throw Gary Player in there for good measure.

Forever, Player, Palmer and Nicklaus will be remembered as the “Big Three.” Last Thursday, they were the honourary starters at the 79th Masters. Rivals, friends, legends.

Fifty years from now, what are the chances the honourary starters at the 129th Masters will be Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and …? (Discuss among yourselves.)