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Sally Jenkins: Forget Tiger vs. Phil; the torch has passed to Rory & Spieth

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Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth carry it all so lightly, don’t they? At least for now, time is an unlimited commodity and consequences have no weight for the twentysomethings, who rank No. 1 and No. 2 in the world on the eve of the PGA Championship and will be paired together in the opening round. McIlroy is springing around like a spaniel despite rupturing a ligament just six weeks ago, and Spieth is already recovered enough from his heartbreak at the British Open to trash talk Phil Mickelson. They are fast healers, with easy swings and go-lucky heads.

McIlroy, 26, is so irrepressibly buoyant and elastic-limbed that he apparently is feeling little pain in the ankle he tore up horsing around in a “kick about” with friends on a soccer pitch July 4. He was hitting balls by July 28, and running on a treadmill shortly after that. He bounded up the steep hills of Whistling Straits during his practice rounds, and pronounced himself “100 percent” ready to defend his PGA title and his No. 1 ranking against the onrush of Spieth.

McIlroy’s rapid return raised some eyebrows among creakier veterans, notably Tiger Woods, who wondered if McIlroy came back too soon and how the ankle would respond to the physical demands of Whistling Straits, with steep side-hills that require crooked, angled stances and a lot of swiveling and heavy-loading of the legs and feet. “This is going to be a tough golf course, if you miss the ball a little bit,” Woods said. “Even the walks, from tee box to fairway, they’re not straight. They’ve got a little angulation. And it’s just a matter of how can he hold up. . .Is he probably going to be in pain? Probably, yeah. Swelling is going to probably occur.”

McIlroy’s attitude? It’s just golf, not mountaineering.

To some, McIlroy was foolish to mess around on a soccer field in the first place, and even more foolish to risk his ankle by coming back too soon. But both decisions are the counterintuitive acts of a prodigy who is determined to balance work and play, maximize his talent yet cling to his boyhood and avoid becoming too over-serious or grinding about his game. It’s a trait he shares with the 22-year-old Spieth, and it’s a good starting point in trying to explain how the pair have been able to rise above the rest of the field under pressure, as well as the press of history, to win a combined four of the last five major championships. “I think it is an interesting fine line,” Spieth said last week. “How do you enjoy it, and how do you rebound?”

They manage to pursue frank historical ambitions without over-striving. Though different types – McIlroy is more sweet-swinging and easily distractible, Spieth the more mechanistic and focused – they have similar outlooks. They sound remarkably alike on the subject. Just listen:

Last year after winning the British Open and PGA in the space of a month to become only the fourth player in a century to collect four majors before the age of 26, McIlroy said, “Golf is looking for someone to put their hand up and try. I want to be that person.” Then here came Spieth, at the age of 21 sweeping the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open, and making a run at becoming the only player other than Ben Hogan and Woods to win three majors in the same year. “I’d like to be one of those people,” Spieth said.

So here they are, bearing down on each other. McIlroy is the elder with twice as many major titles, but Spieth has already won enough to suggest his competitive thirst will be a constant challenge: At the British he was tied for the lead with two holes to play on Sunday before he fell out of a three-way playoff. He then helped his friend Zach Johnson celebrate by chugging out of the claret jug.

Spieth ramped himself back up for the PGA this week by playing in a high stakes practice-round match with Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas at Whistling Straits on Tuesday. He amused his partners by threatening to bring along his U.S. Open trophy to dangle in front of Mickelson; it’s the one big title Mickelson lacks.

“I’m going to try to get the U.S. Open trophy flown in so I can sit it on the front of each green for Phil,” Spieth said. “. . .We’ll see if we can get somebody to carry it around for the round. It’s the first time I have something on him.”

Compare that fresh attitude to, say, the choppy semi-hysterics of a Bubba Watson, or the grinding hyper-analytical neurosis of Woods. If Spieth and McIlroy have a quality that sets them apart, it’s their resilient mental health. It’s a main component that allows them to be repeat-major champions, as important as their brilliantly constructed swing mechanics. Here is Zach Johnson on Spieth:

“It’s like an innate ability to just get it done,” Johnson said. “. . . Seems to me he kind of likes when his back is against the wall. And he doesn’t succumb to probably the pressure of being a favorite, either. I think there’s a little bit of tension and pressure and I would say even restriction, to some degree, that guys have when you’re supposed to rise to the top. And for whatever reason he has – that doesn’t bother him a bit.”

It will be all the more interesting, then, to see them playing with each other in the spotlight of a major championship. For Spieth, still more history is at stake. For McIlroy, the No. 1 ranking is potentially in play: Spieth could seize it from him by finishing third or better. Until now, the notion of a rivalry between the two was just that, an idea. They were too young, and hadn’t intersected enough when it counted. Then came McIlroy’s injury. But with McIlroy in the field again, he will have “a chance to at least fight for it himself,” Spieth said. He added, “Which is what we all want.” Yes it is.

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at sally.jenkins@washpost.com

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