US PGA Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
HAS there been a more hotly-anticipated US PGA in recent memory than this week's championship at Quail Hollow? Consider the facts - victory for Jordan Spieth will mean that, at the age of 24, he will complete a career Grand Slam. It would be an astonishing feat, especially when you set him next to the likes of Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus.
Woods was born to be a superstar. He had the lot - good looks, the build of an athlete, the ability to hit the ball miles, charisma and every shot in the book. Nicklaus built his entire career around the sport's four majors - they were the only tournaments he was interesting in winning. Like Woods, he also hit the ball prodigious distances. He meticulously planned and plotted his way round courses and had a rare ability to will the ball into the hole. There was a time when it seemed he couldn't miss a 10-foot putt - especially if it were to win. Unlike Woods, Nicklaus was overweight when he first hit the big time, but he soon realised that he needed to slim down. He also grew his hair in an effort to become more "fashionable".
Between the two of them, they won an astonishing 32 major championships. Had Woods not been the victim of chronic back pain, there is little doubt that tally would have been far higher. And when you look at the annual statistics, both men always figured in the categories that mattered.
So what of Spieth? He is a mediocre drivers of a golf ball on the PGA Tour, way down both in terms or distance and, crucially, accuracy. The drive he hit on the 13th hole during the final round of The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale missed the fairway by more than 100 yards, and he frequently misses the short and prepared. You could argue that he gets away with it on the PGA Tour because Americans don't really "do" rough. There may well be something in that, but you don't win all the tournaments he has without an ability to get the ball out of the long grass.
Spieth is tied 96th in average driving distance, hitting the ball 291.7 yards, and is a lowly 136th in driving accuracy, hitting just 58.37% of fairways
On the other hand, he leads the FedEx Cup standings, has had more top 10 finishes than anybody, leads the scoring average (69.080), is second in greens in regulation (70.58%), and fourth in strokes gained. There is a perception that Spieth is the best putter in the world, but do the statistics back that up? In terms of strokes gained on the greens, you may be surprised to learn that he languishes in 38th place Here are the key areas - only 20 players have had fewer three putts this season, but 139 players hole a greater percentage of putts under five feet than Spieth. 10-15 feet? He is 169th. 20-25 feet? 47th. Putts per round? 31st with 28.56. Total putting? 75th.
So what does all this prove? Absolutely nothing. The bottom line is that when Spieth is in the mood he DOES hole more putts than his rivals and, crucially, like both Woods and Nicklaus, he holes more of the putts that matter.
The US PGA Championship is the least glamorous of golf's majors, but don't try telling that to the man who lifts the massive Wanamaker Trophy. The defending champion is Jimmy Walker, in 2015 it was won by Jason Day, in 2014 by Rory McIlroy, in 2013 by Jason Dufner, in 2012 by McIlroy, in 2011 by Keegan Bradley and in 2010 by Martin Kaymer.
All eyes will be on Spieth, but there is every reason to believe that he will be made to fight every single inch of the way by McIlroy, who arrives at Quail Hollow with a new caddie, best friend Harry Diamond, and, finally, with some confidence in his game. And the key thing is that the Northern Irishman, who hasn't won a major for three years, loves the course. In fact, if you were to tell him he could only play one golf course for the rest of his life then he might well pick Quail Hollow.
His form here in the Wells Fargo Championship is astonishing. He won in 2010 and 2015, and also finished second in 2012, fourth in 2016, eighth in 2014 and 10th in 2013 - by anybody's standards, that is pretty impressive. But there have been some changes since he played there in 2016. The rough will be thicker and the greens have all been rebuilt. On top of that, architect Tom Fazio has redesigned the first, fourth, fifth, ninth and 11th holes. The brutal "Green Mile" - the course's three-hole closing stretch - is unchanged and is almost certainly where the tournament will be won and lost.
For the record, Spieth's only appearance in the Wells Fargo was back in 2013, when he finished in a tie for 32nd place. But this is different. This is a major, and his juices will be flowing.
And as if it wasn't enough that Spieth and McIlroy arrive at Quail Hollow with the wind in their sails, there is also the small matter of world No 1 Dustin Johnson returning to something like his best form. He played well at Birkdale and even better during the Canadian Open at Glen Abbey. The Dustinator is a fearsome creature when he is firing on all cylinders, and there is everything reason to believe that he will be in the shake-up come Sunday afternoon.
When you also throw in Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas and Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama, who was sensational at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational, you can understand why so many of us cannot wait for the tournament to get under way. And there's more...Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter form part of an incredibly strong European challenge.
Apart from the first round at Birkdale, when he shot a miserable 76, Fleetwood continued his amazing form with three rounds under 70. He is brimming with confidence right now and has proved to himself and his rivals that he can compete with the very best in the world. And Poulter's return to form has been one of the feel-good stories of 2017. Since finishing second in the Players Championship at Sawgrass the shackles have come off and we are once again seeing the best of the Englishman. His final round of 64 in the Canadian Open was a joy to behold.
Garcia's victory at Augusta has given him a new lease of life. Now married and enjoying life to the full, the Spaniard would surprise nobody if he were to collect another major or two before he is finished. There are still times when it is painful to watch him standing over short putts, but he has learnt to live with his frailties on the greens and the rest of his game is so good that he can afford the odd three-putt. If not the senior Spaniard, then what about Rahm, whose form has been a revelation. He has already won twice in 2017, at Torrey Pines and at Portstewart, which proves that he has the game to win on different types of courses. He will surely win several majors - it is just a question of time.
And if none of those names float your boat, how about putting a few pence on Daniel Berger, another of the outstanding batch of young American superstars. Berger may not possess a classic golf swing but he definitely has the X factor and is growing in confidence with every passing week. He is also in a rich vein of form, and could just surprise a few people.
To Win: Jordan Spieth, Sorry Rory, but the American is going to get his Grand Slam before you.
Each Way: Rory McIlroy. Huge week for the Northern Irishman.
Each Way: Daniel Berger. Dark horse who could easily become a front runner.
Jordan Spieth. Possesses the best temperament in the game.
Rory McIlroy. Long overdue his fifth major.
Daniel Berger. Quail Hollow could be made for him.
Dustin Johnson. Back to his best.
Tommy Fleetwood. Right at home in this company.
Sergio Garcia. Riding the crest of a wave.
Jon Rahm. Golf's next superstar.
Rickie Fowler. The longer he waits, the harder it gets.
Hideki Matsuyama. Can win anywhere.
Justin Rose. As consistent as it gets.
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