The season that Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy have had – winning three tournaments between them and recording seven and ten top-10 finishes respectively – would have looked impressive for the majority of golfers.
However, such is the talent of the two stars, and the level of expectations they create, failure to win this week’s PGA Championship will be seen as a season to forget. If they win a handful of PGA or European Tour titles, that’s kind of expected. No big deal really.
But ever since McIlroy won back-toback majors in 2014 and Spieth replicated that effort last year, they have transcended themselves to a level where their success is calculated by how well they do in the four majors. This year, McIlroy has top-10s in the Masters and the Open Championship, but has missed the cut in the US Open.
Spieth, after that spectacular collapse during the final round of the Masters, struggled to get a sub-par round until the Sunday at Royal Troon. And both players admitted as much at Baltusrol.
McIlroy said a win on Sunday would elevate his season from a B minus to an A plus, while Spieth believes he has not improved much as a player since 2015 and this is his opportunity to show he is making progress.
The PGA Championship used a tag-line ‘Glory’s last shot’ until a couple of years ago, and this is proving to be the case exactly with the world No3 and No4. Neither player is taking part in the Olympics, so they cannot even think of a gold medal to brighten up their season.
Yes, the FedEx Cup remains and both players are in contention, but that really is more money than honour. Winning the Ryder Cup would be nice, but being part of a team event is a completely different feeling to bagging a major.
World No1 Jason Day is also in a similar position, winless in a major this season, and yet he did win the Players, a World Golf Championship, and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, three of the strongest non-major events during the year.
The relatively small greens at Baltusrol will suit someone like Spieth given his phenomenal short game, but he did not have the best Open championship with his putter. McIlroy, on the other hand, is most comfortable in the PGA Championship.
The course set-up and conditions suit his game to a tee, and the proof of that is only once has he finished outside the top-20 in the tournament in seven starts.
And yet, it will be extremely difficult for the duo to get their hands on the massive Wanamaker Trophy. The reason for that is the exceptional form being shown by players like Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson.
There are several interesting storylines at Baltusrol this week, but the one involving Spieth and McIlroy is the most compelling one to follow.
Among others, there is the possibility of a first-time major winner taking the glory in all four events this year. The two best players not to have won a major, after Stenson departed that group less than a fortnight ago, are Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood.
One can perhaps also include Rickie Fowler in that group now. And of course, there is Phil Mickleson, the perennial favourite of the American fans. It would be interesting to see how he gets over his Open heartache this week.