SPRINGFIELD (New Jersey) • Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the world heading into last year's PGA Championship. But they return this year almost as after-thoughts, overshadowed by a wave of hotter rivals who have grabbed the limelight.
Not that anyone is writing off the pair from contending at Baltusrol in New Jersey this week, but their status as underdogs underlines how quickly the sporting landscape can change.
Top-ranked Jason Day, US Open champion Dustin Johnson, and British Open duellists Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson are more the focus of attention, leaving McIlroy and Spieth searching to find the missing ingredient needed to regain their previous greatness.
Not that either is too far off top form, but there is a fine line in golf between lifting a trophy and finishing in the pack.
McIlroy, winner of four Major titles including the 2012 and 2014 PGA Championships, feels more at home at Baltusrol than at Royal Troon, where he tied for fifth, a distant 16 strokes behind winner Stenson this month.
The Northern Irishman is probably the best driver in the world, but links courses such as Troon that often do not necessitate hitting a driver do not always play to his strength. The world No. 4 admitted that he could not have envisaged matching Stenson's record-winning score of 20-under at Troon, though his task was not helped by the bad luck he had to be on the more difficult side of the draw.
TEE TIMES (SELECTED)
7.40pm* (S'pore time) Ernie Els (Rsa), Rickie Fowler (USA)
8.10pm* Lee Westwood (Eng)
8.20pm* Keegan Bradley (USA), Adam Scott (Aus)
8.30pm* Phil Mickelson (USA), Rory McIlroy (Nir), Jason Day (Aus)
Friday, 1.25am Sergio Garcia (Esp), Jordan Spieth (USA), Bubba Watson (USA)
1.45am Danny Willett (Eng), Dustin Johnson (USA), Henrik Stenson (Swe)
* From 10th tee
"Baltusrol, it's more of my type of golf I guess, and I feel like I can really do well this week. I feel like my game is in good shape," McIlroy told reporters on Tuesday ahead of today's opening round. "I feel like I'm swinging it well. I'm hitting it good. Every aspect of my game, I'm very comfortable with."
Spieth also thinks he is on the verge of firing on all cylinders.
The world No. 3 said: "I've been getting a bit too frustrated at times but recently I've gotten back to... the way that I grew up playing, which is just step up and hit it.
"I have more confidence in my mid-to-long-iron play than I did last year. Short game has gone down just a bit. I'm working hard on it."
Meanwhile, Day has opted for rest over practice before defending his world No. 1 status and his first Major title. The 28-year-old skipped practice on Tuesday over the par-70, 7,428-yard layout and opted for another rest day after spending Monday with his family.
The Australian will be playing his fourth event in five weeks and third in a row. But after withdrawing from the Rio Olympics over Zika virus concerns, he will have a month off before the US PGA Tour's season-ending play-offs opener.
"It has been very difficult to plan my practice schedule around tournament schedule, because when I'm done, I take a few days off and I'm tired, and you've got to try and somehow manage that," Day said last week at the Canadian Open.
"The biggest thing is being able to prepare properly for the events, give yourself the best opportunity to win, and then try and do your best. That's all you can ask."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE