SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Featured pairings don’t always work out, but this one was a no-brainer.
Rory McIlroy, the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world, played the first two rounds of the 97th PGA Championship with Jordan Spieth, ranked No. 2 after winning the Masters and U.S. Open this year. The third member was Zach Johnson, the British Open winner.
So, the PGA’s pairing at Whistling Straits had the champions of the last four majors, plus the intrigue of defending champion McIlroy returning to tournament golf after suffered ligament damage in his left ankle while playing soccer on July 4.
The matchup was so enticing that even Aaron Rogers, the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback, was among the fans hiking around the hilly course to watch on the morning after his team played its first preseason game.
Obviously to everyone, the coveted No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings is on the line heading into the two weekend rounds and – based on the first 36 holes – Spieth is poised to supplant McIlroy. Spieth carded a 67 on Friday while McIlroy had 71. Spieth, at 6-under-par 138 for two rounds, is four strokes ahead of McIlroy.
Spieth isn’t leading – that honor goes to Sweden’s David Lingmerth who was one shot better among the finishers – but the possibility of Spieth taking his third major title in a year is hardly a remote one. Only Ben Hogan in 1953 and Tiger Woods in 2000 have won three majors in the same year.
The Spieth-McIlroy pairing was over before a vicious storm hit the tournament, resulting in play ending at 5:30 p.m. with 57 players still on the course. They’ll complete the second round on Saturday before the third round begins.
The first two rounds here proved two things in the budding rivalry. Spieth hasn’t backed off competitively since his narrow loss in the British Open last month and McIlroy hasn’t lost his competitive edge after the injury-forced layoff.
“I’ve been friends with Rory since maybe the middle to end of the first year that I was out here,’’ said Spieth. “His game is extremely exciting. Watching drive the golf ball is just inspirational. It was really a good pairing for us.’’
Not for Johnson, though. He opened with a 75 on Thursday, got back to even par with three straight birdies to begin Friday’s round and then backed off again. At 3-over 147 he missed the 36-hole cut and won’t play on the weekend.
Spieth and McIlroy will have different partners on Saturday. McIlroy has more work to do if he’s to defend the PGA title he won last year at Valhalla, in Louisville. Putting was the problem on Friday.
“I don’t know if it’s rust or I just didn’t putt well,’’ he said. “I don’t want to blame it on rust.’’
The good news is, there appears no lingering effects from the ankle injury.
“It could have been much worse,’’ he said. “It could have required surgery. I’ve done a lot of rehab and a lot of hard work to get back as quickly as possible.’’
Though his trainer talked him out of competing last week in the Bridgestone Invitational, McIlroy proved to himself that he was fit to compete by playing 72 holes walking – 18 in four straight days – in Portugal. There was no pain and no swelling and he went for a 20-minute run here on Tuesday.
Spieth isn’t happy with his driving but his short game has kept him in contention. The highlight on Friday came at No. 18 – Whistling Straits’ toughest hole. Spieth holed a 50-foot bunker shot for birdie there. Despite his success elsewhere, this was the first time Spieth made the cut in the PGA. He missed in both 2013 and 2014.
Low scores weren’t out of the question on Saturday. Japan’s Hiroshi Iwata joined a long list of players posting the low round in a major championship. He posted a 9-under-par 63 after opening with a 77.