Mariotti: Few miss Woods as golf prepares for rivalry of young titans 

click to enlarge Masters winner Jordan Spieth, left, and Rory McIlroy, winner of four majors, are now the new faces of the PGA Tour. - CHARLIE RIEDEL/AP
  • Charlie Riedel/AP
  • Masters winner Jordan Spieth, left, and Rory McIlroy, winner of four majors, are now the new faces of the PGA Tour.
Life is just one big, rollicking joystick right now for Rory McIlroy, who happened to be holding one Tuesday at Harding Park. He was standing in a party tent called the Cadillac Escalade Lounge, playing a new video game known as, naturally, “Rory McIlroy PGA Tour.”

“It’s so realistic, so accurate,” he said, swinging a virtual wedge on No. 18. “Look, there’s a big divot.”

That’s when it occurred to me: Wasn’t Tiger Woods the golfing face of EA Sports for about 15 years? Didn’t he and McIlroy begin co-sharing the cover of the golf video game in 2011? And didn’t the company sever its relationship with Woods not long ago, leaving McIlroy as the solo star and reminding us of this week’s haunting overtone?

No longer is Tiger missed at a golf tournament.

He isn’t relevant, not when McIlroy is the world’s No. 1 player and an A-list celebrity who can have his fun, apparently, without bedding bimbos and launching scandals. For example, he somehow plans on attending the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight Saturday night in Las Vegas, where a ringside seat awaits him. “Where did I get my ticket? I don’t know. I do know, but I’m not sure I want to say and definitely don’t want to tell you how much I paid for it,” he said.

Which is curious because McIlroy’s presence, according to NBC’s broadcast schedule, might be required near the Pacific Ocean until 8 p.m. San Francisco time if he advances to the quarterfinals of the World Golf Championships Cadillac Match Play event. NBC is trumpeting 3½ hours of “live coverage immediately following the Kentucky Derby,” so the network will want the sport’s leading man playing in prime time. We know McIlroy is operating on a sports fast track, hoping to pass Woods, who has been stuck on 14 major victories for about seven years, and then challenge Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. But no supersonic surge, not even Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, would get him to the MGM Grand in time for the main attraction if he’s still playing here past 7 p.m. “Nothing that a few quick birdies won’t change if I try and win 7 and 6,” McIlroy said of the head-to-head format. “If the fight starts at 10 o’clock like they usually do, then it should be OK.”

Memo to Rory: It’s not happening. What happens at Harding Park stays at Harding Park and doesn’t include private jets at all hours of the night. Unless, of course, he throws a match, which he never would do, this humble son of County Down, Northern Ireland, who grew up in a town called Holywood and now has gone a bit Hollywood. Still 25, with big eyes and a boyish face and full of bounce and nerve, McIlroy isn’t going to prioritize a prizefight — even the most expensive and lavish ever created — over an opportunity to break through for the first time this year and reaffirm his place atop a dimpled-ball world. He particularly wouldn’t do so if there’s a chance he could play, in Sunday’s final, the No. 2 player in the world, a sensation who is four years younger and, for a moment this month at Augusta National, assumed a larger place in the golf conversation than McIlroy and, really, any prodigy since Woods.

His name is Jordan Spieth. He, too, is in town, in a convergence of star power that might titillate the Bay Area if the Warriors weren’t gunning for an NBA title, the 49ers weren’t drafting No. 15 amid organizational chaos, the Raiders weren’t drafting No. 4 as Mark Davis prepares the moving vans for Los Angeles, the Giants weren’t playing the Los Angeles Dodgers, the A’s weren’t hosting the Los Angeles Angels, Mayweather wasn’t fighting Pacquiao and Alex Rodriguez wasn’t about to pass Willie Mays on the home run list as Barry Bonds roots for a fellow juicer over his godfather. Even with so much percolating, and even if the Daly City BART stop is an ongoing reality show, do try to watch McIlroy and Spieth starting today in this newfangled golfing format.

They are not the future of golf. They are golf as it is today, sans Woods, who did not qualify for this event because he’s not ranked among the top 64 players. Used to be the biggest story line at any tournament not involving Woods was his absence. Thanks to Spieth’s resounding, wire-to-wire triumph at the Masters, no one is thinking about Tiger, maybe for the first time since he said, “Hello, world.”

We have our theater: McIlroy vs. Spieth, the European vs. the American, the phenom with the brogue vs. the golden child with the gentle drawl.

There is no villain in play. Rather, they both appear to be upstanding citizens who are prepared to take a struggling sport — are they really playing golf with soccer balls and large holes in Argentina? — and restore it as appointment viewing for the next decade or so. When Woods faded into personal turmoil and injury hell, I thought golf was dead. I was wrong.

“I was definitely inspired by what [Spieth] did at Augusta. It’s great. We’re 1 and 2 in the world,” McIlroy said. “It’s very important to get your major tally up and running at an early stage in your career. I’ve been asked about the budding rivalry for a couple of weeks. Golf is hard, because you look at Tiger and Phil [Mickelson], they went head-to-head just a handful of times over the space of 15 years. So you never really know how much you’re going to go head-to-head against someone. It would be great to — if it’s the two of us, or four or five, a bunch of us competing for tournaments week in, week out. It can only be good for golf.”

When Spieth was done with his Chamber of Commerce nod praising southwest San Francisco as “one of the best spots for golf in the world” — also mentioning Pebble Beach, St. Andrews and Long Island — he, too, recognized the tantalizing potential of a head-to-head career rivalry with McIlroy. “I still have a long way to go where I could be considered that. I think I’m off to a good start,” said Spieth, who has one major title to McIlroy’s four. “His success — I can’t compare what I’ve done to what he has done. In order to have a rivalry, we need to be competing against each other consistently at the highest level. That hasn’t happened yet. All in all, Rory and I haven’t been battling it out in an event to get what we want, I guess. I’d love to play against him.

“Have I looked ahead to what it could mean? Sure. It would be really, really cool for that to happen. I could see it almost as a torch passing down. At the same time, that’s a long way off. Phil is contending. Tiger is coming back. Golf is in a great place right now. To look ahead, that’s at least another five or 10 years ahead in my mind.”

Spieth is being polite, a trademark belying his 21 years. But since his green jacket fitting, he firmly realizes what could be ahead in life. He doesn’t like it when fellow players call him “the golden child,” referring to a fortuitous series of dramatic shots in recent years, but he does believe golfing karma has been working in his favor. “Having inched closer and accomplished some of my major goals in the sport of golf, no pun intended, I’m inching closer to more goals that I have. And why not work as hard as I can to attain those goals if I’m already feeling like I’m playing well and more comfortable?” Spieth said. “That’s exciting to me. It makes me want to work harder and harder.

“I think that there was some luck involved. And I think, sure, that was kind of God’s plan for me, I guess, for those [shots] to go in. And I’m in position now where I can take advantage of my goals on and off the course at a younger age than maybe I would have if those had not gone in. It may have sped up the track a couple of years. I can use that as an advantage, and I plan to do so.”

Translated: He wants to be where McIlroy is, the very definition of a rivalry. “Certainly, I’m being recognized more [since the Masters] and taking advantage of certain opportunities. It’s cool,” Spieth said. “But I’m still extremely motivated. I haven’t reached that top level. I’m happy with the way things have gone, but I’m not satisified if my career ended now. I have more to do, and I might as well try and do it soon.”

Unlike Woods and Mickelson, who had their fair share of friction, Spieth and McIlroy don’t seem capable of sniping. “It’s hard for me to speak for somebody who is No. 1 in the world. I’m not,” Spieth said. “For Rory to be able to hold his No. 1 position and continue to play really good golf while enjoying the perks of being No. 1, it’s incredible. And to be such a good guy on top of it? He’s a role model for me.”

Does he admire McIlroy to the point of joining him in Vegas? Shudder the thought.

“If things don’t go perfectly for me this week, maybe I’ll see him at the fight,” Spieth said. “Maybe we’ll duke it out right afterwards.

“There are tickets. I don’t plan on being there. I may be there.”

We’d prefer they duke it out Sunday by the sea, as the fog lifts on a sport dominated by one man for too long. “I guess things change,” McIlroy said. “Things move on.”

Finally, we have, too.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.

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Jay Mariotti

Jay Mariotti

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Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.
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