From 2000 to 2002 and 2005 to 2007, the main question ahead of golf’s biggest events was simple – Can Tiger Woods be beaten? The answer, as it turned out, would be no, 11 times during that period as he laid a strong claim to being to being one of the greatest sportsmen of all time.
As we approach this weeks’ USPGA Championship, the question now has to be answered is if Rory McIlroy can be beaten in the form he’s carrying, and for many, the answer is no. Following a stunning return to form after an acrimonious set of private life events, McIlroy has taken his game to new levels, most notably of all with his sublime driving, as he’s won the BMW PGA Championship – coming from seven shots back to beat Thomas Bjorn – and then dominating the Open, blitzing the course from wire to wire and threatening to embarrass a quality field when winning with far more ease than a two shot margin suggested.
To add to that, he went into the Bridgestone Invitational – the most crucial event leading into this – and came from behind to catch long time front runner Sergio Garcia and beat him by three shots in a consummate display of power and control. If he’s in that form again then he will make a mockery of even quotes of 5/1 but that is an incredibly short price not seen since the days of Woods in his peak and even if he romps home again, there are six places on offer and a whole host of other markets – the benefit of modern golf bookmaking – so Rory is my no means the only option.
Before looking at potential contenders, it’s important to take a look at Valhalla, the Jack Nickalus course that will be the showcase for action over the coming days. Built in the 1980’s and opened up to the general public in 1986, it has been used 5 times recently for tournaments of note: the 1996 and 2000 editions of the USPGA Championship, as well as the 2008 Ryder Cup and the 2004 and 2011 Senior PGA Championships.
The course has undergone many notable changes since then – in short the greens have been changed to bentgrass, along with new contours being added (it should be noted that there are less slopes), all of the bunkers have been altered, half a dozen holes – 2, 3, 7, 9, 14 and 15 – have been changed.
Just three par 5’s make this an extremely tough scoring test by the book but the last time the event was held here – albeit with some notable changes in the interim since – 18 under was the joint winning score with par being 72, which is generous by the standards of most majors. The fairways here are also generous with their run – should the weather stay dry – but at least as important as actually finding the fairways with the rough especially punishing here and approach shots massively important in the biggest golf events; Even more so with the PGA having a license to shift around pin positions.
The one key characteristic – of the two that will count most in my mind to winning this week – is driving. Valhalla is a mammoth 7,458 yards, with 6 par 4’s that are almost 460 yards each, at a par of 71.
Driving is a key component to majors anyway – the lowest ranking (from the PGA Tour stats) of any of this year’s three winners in their victories is seventh, with Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy having both led the field in this category – and previous editions of this tournament have also thrived – Woods led the field in this when he beat his playoff rival, the unfancied Bob May, who was seventh – only 2 winners of the last 10 have been worse than 23rd in this category. If the rain comes, the biggest hitters will be at even more of an advantage with a lack of runoff helping with inaccuracy with the rough becomes even fiercer.
The other key characteristic to look at is greens in regulation – in layman’s terms, simply finding the greens as often as possible with your short game – as only 2 winners in the last 10 years have ranked outside the top 10 for this stat (Tiger and May were first and second 14 years ago).
Recent majors seem to have produced an identikit kind of winner since Tiger’s decline, with nearly every winner a new champion and either a rapidly improving up and comer or someone who has been knocking on the door for a good while, and looking back through the previous winners, a certain template of a tournament winner begins to emerge.
Seven years ago the WGC Bridgestone Invitational became the last tournament before the USPGA, and since then, every winner of this title has finished in the top 22 there, while in 2006 and 2004 Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh came off wins the previous week and Phil Mickleson’s victory could be foreseen with a top 10 finish at the now non existent International, but just to hammer it home – 13 of the last 15 winners had won in the season on either tour and the last 10 have finished in the top 25 on their previous start.
So we’re looking for in form big drivers (with bombing being a plus) with top class approach games this week. Adam Scott’s stats don’t suggest that he’s been excelling in those areas but his results have been phenomenally consistent and he looks sure to go close this week.
On only two occasions this year has he finished outside the top 20 and he’s finished in the top 10 eight times – hitting the vein of that form since his win at Crowne Plaza in May. He was then fourth at Memorial – particularly important form as that event is held at the Muirfield Village another Nicklaus design that bears close relation to this weeks’ test – before his ninth at the US Open was followed up with an especially creditable fifth at the Open. At Hoylake McIlroy and Sergio Garcia were the benefit of earlier draws then the wind was down, going in the first wave for the first round that was then vice versa for the second day, while Scott had the worst of conditions on both occasions so a round of 12 under par was hugely creditable given the conditions and his eighth at Bridgestone tells us that the iron is still hot so to to speak with regards to a bid for another major.
His intent for a more aggressive approach as said to the media is a clear sign of his attitude but if there’s any course that’s going to be receptive towards such demands it’s this one and he would’ve rewarded each/way support on 5 separate occasions (on these terms) this season, so even at a short price he’s worth backing to serve a serious challenge to Rory.
Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia are in the form of their lives and obvious contenders. Having hit just patches of form this season, the former US Open Champion was 12th trying to retain his title before winning the Quicken Loans National and Scottish Open before playing below his form at Hoylake, but it should be noted that he was in the worst of the draw with Scott so his effort can be upgraded and he’s finished fourth at Bridgestone since.
He makes more appeal than Garcia, who is having a magical season with 6 top 5 finishes including 4 of those in his last 5 starts, the standout efforts being playing Hoylake to a tee when chasing home Rory and then blazing a trail only to be caught by the red hot favourite at Bridgestone. The form stacks up and the confidence should be there but the worry is the course; He had a rare dreadful Ryder Cup there in 2008 and didn’t enjoy it in 2000; He’s a far better player now but it would rest on my mind and his record in this isn’t the greatest either.
I remains convinced that it is a matter of when, and not if, Rickie Fowler wins a major for the first time and with his work with Butch Harmon has been reaping rewards with a strong beginning to the season seeing him finish fifth in the Masters, and a long run of poor form has since changed into a hot streak that’s been going since June with 4 top 10 finishes including runner up efforts in the US Open and the Open proper.
His Open second came after an eighth at Aberdeen in the Scottish Open and his second in the US Open came after a tied 13th at the St Jude Classic, so his eighth last week is a perfect warmup and his all round game couldn’t be in better shape right now.
Phil Mickleson is having one of his worst seasons but woe betide anyone who thinks the talent isn’t there and he’s had a better time of late, finishing 11th in Scotland before a 23rd at Hoylake that was disappointing although a throat problem may have seen him off his best and his 62 at Bridgestone to get a share of 15 was a reminder of just what he can do at his best.
It’s notable that Bridgestone is not a course that Phil really favours – since 2000, he has just one top 10 finish there – and his previous experience – a rare factor in tournament events here – Lefty was eighth here in 1996 and ninth four years later – and it may be that a healthy, rejuvenated Phil sets up a big challenge this week.
Keegan Bradley looked set to go on a meteoric rise when winning this in 2011 and while it hasn’t quite happened for him since – he defended his title well with a third the next year and won the Bridgestone Invitational in 2012 – he retains nearly all of his ability and shown plenty of it in the past few weeks. Fourth in the US Open, he was one of only four to finish in the top 20 from his side of the draw at Hoylake in the Open and the time before had finished fourth at Greenbrier; He was never far away when fourth at Bridgestone last week to confirm that he had his finger on the pulse and aiming for the Ryder Cup, will want to, and is capable of, putting on a big show here.
Graeme McDowell’s fine season shows no signs of stopping and he looks to be a value contender not just for the overall but especially the top European market with so many of the likely contenders from America. The Northern Irishman has not been out of the top 10 in his last 4 starts, catching Kevin Stadler with a strong late rally to retain the French Open; He has since finished ninth at Hoylake, ninth in the Canadian Open and eights at Bridgestone, and will be benefited far more than most should the rains come as well – he is an excellent player of soft courses.
The portfolio is toploaded with major favourites, much like the Open, but this has been a decent major towards market leaders – 6 of the last 10 USPGA champions started this event 20-1 or shorter – and this season the cream has risen to the top in majors with winners at 30, 40/1 and 20/1.
That said, it may be time to go looking for some chunkier prices and at the head of the list is Ryan Moore. A golfer who has impressed me throughought the season, the former Amateur star has struggled with swing changes and injuries but he’s had a fine season, making the top 15 in his last four starts including a 12th at Hoylake and an eighth in the warm-up last week, and I’m loathe to leave him out of my plans this week.
Of the biggest prices on offer, the one that appealed most was Chris Kirk. A strong performer in the South – he has wins in Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee – he has course winning form at a course designed by Jack Nickalus and not just that, he has made the cut and posted solid efforts in all three majors so far, while his fourth at Memorial also reads extremely well for him.
He makes more appeal than Geoff Ogilvy – more than capable at his best form, which he produced to get to this stage –Scott Stallings and Kevin Standler, who fits many of the trends for this and was in the top 20 last week at Bridgestone.
Last but not least, South African Charl Schawartzel is worth considering strongly for the top rest of the World honours. Seventh in the Open, he closed with a 64 at Firestone to share fourth and he needs serious considering not only as a contender for this but the overall.
- 5 pts each/way Adam Scott (12/1 general)
1 pt each/way Rickie Fowler (22/1 general)
1 pt each/way Phil Mickleson (28/1 BetVictor, Paddy Power)
1 pt each/way Keegan Bradley (35/1 Coral)
1 pt each/way Graeme McDowell (40/1 general)
1 pt each/way Ryan Moore (66/1 general)
1 pt each/way Chris Kirk (150/1 general)
Advice – Top European
1.5 pts each/way Graeme McDowell (16/1 Bet Victor)
Advice – Top 20
1 pt Chris Kirk (6/1 Boylesports)
1 pt Ryan Moore (3/1 general)
1 pt Chris Kirk (14/1 general)