Jordan Spieth set the golf world ablaze last year when he won back-to-back majors, the Masters and the U.S. Open, as a 21-year-old with just one previous PGA Tour victory to his name.
From there Spieth went on to finish in the top-five at the two remaining majors (T-4 at the British Open and second at the PGA Championship), and he won the FedEx Cup.
By season’s end, Spieth was world number one and had become, unequivocally, The Future of Golf.
As the upcoming golf season slowly kicks into gear, one of the most enticing subplots will be if Spieth can pick up where he left off.
According to Rory McIlroy, who knows a thing or two about early-career success, it’s going to be awfully difficult for Spieth to do so.
“It will feel completely different for Jordan,” McIlroy told the Telegraph on Monday. “If you look at the stats at how those who have had a double-major season have performed the next year … well, it’s hard to back up. It just is. There’s so much expectation, so much attention and focus. And I think it is more self-inflicted pressure really as your expectations are so high.”
At first glance, McIlroy’s comments feel sort of obvious: it’s always harder to win when the spotlight is on you, which is why we so rarely see repeat victories in sports. But McIlroy is also speaking from experience as someone who has struggled after seasons in which he’s won majors, and as someone who knows what it’s like to be anointed golf’s bright future.
In 2012, a 22-year-old McIlroy became the second youngest golfer to ever become the world number one, and later that season he won the 2012 PGA Championship, the second major championship of his career. In 2013, however, he struggled to live up to expectations, winning one tournament but making little noise at the majors.
McIlroy bounced back in 2014 to win two more majors, the British Open and the PGA Championship. This gave him four major championships at the age of 24, and he had regained the world number one ranking. But early the next season, he broke his ankle playing soccer and subsequently missed most of 2015.
“This time last year [my expectations] were through the roof coming off a great season, winning those back-to-back majors and although I started well I never felt I really got into my stride with the injuries and stuff,” he said.
McIlroy’s fluke ankle injury early into last season somewhat muddles his theory that the pressure makes it especially difficult to play well in a year after winning multiple majors; prior to his injury McIlroy had finished in the top-10 in both the Masters and U.S. Open, and certainly didn’t appear to be suffering from any sort of hangover.
Still, who knows whether or not Spieth will live up to his own expectations, or if the expectations of a golfer coming off multiple majors are ever really attainable. McIlroy, meanwhile, is currently ranked no. 3 in the world and as healthy as he’s been since 2014. If nothing else, this could be the year we get to see Spieth and McIlroy — Golf’s Bright Future(s) — finally go at it.
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