US PGA Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
JUSTIN THOMAS defends his US PGA Championship at Bellerive in St Louis, but all eyes will once again be on Tiger Woods as he attempts to land the final major of 2018, and his first since his extraordinary victory on one leg at the US Open at Torrey Pines more than 10 years ago.
When Thomas won his first major 12 months ago it surprised few people. He was playing some incredible golf during a remarkable season in which he was named PGA Tour Player of the Year, and looked like winning every time he teed up the ball. He topped the money list and won the FedEx Cup. From January to October he won five times and even threw in a 59 when claiming the Sony Open, which he won with a four-round total of 253 - a mind-boggling 27 under par.
And when he began 2018 by winning the Honda Classic in February, beating Luke List in a playoff, it seemed that we were headed for more of the same. But it didn't quite work out that way. It was probably inevitable that Thomas would suffer some kind of reaction to such a stellar year. Nevertheless, it was surprising to see him struggle with so many parts of his game. He was utterly bamboozled by the puzzle presented by Carnoustie at The Open and duly missed the cut.
Mind you, Dustin Johnson also failed to make it to the weekend at Carnoustie, but simply got on a plane, headed across the Atlantic to the Canadian Open and did what he does best, reducing Glenn Abbey to its knees as he won yet another tournament, his 19th on the PGA Tour, and strengthened his grip at the top of the world rankings.
Thomas is a fearless young golfer who, with a perfect sense of timing, returned to his best during the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. And let’s put things in perspective. He is 25 years of age and has already won nine times on the PGA Tour, which puts in the company of the likes of Woods and Jordan Spieth.
Spieth is another who is enduring a perplexing season. He came close to winning The Masters in April but, truth be told, the rest of his year has been a bitter disappointment. He got himself into prime position to win a second Claret Jug but simply lost his way in the final round. The same thing happened at Birkdale in 2017, but on that occasion he was able to summon a succession of brilliant shots and unlikely putts to win the tournament. There seems to be something missing this year, and you can be sure that it will be troubling him deeply.
However, if he wins at Bellerive he will join a an elite group of players to have completed a career grand slam and he will be giving it his very best shot, as it will also ensure he joins that club ahead of Rory McIlroy, who still requires a Green Jacket to complete the set.
History shows a number of seemingly unlikely winners of this tournament, including the likes of YE Yang, Rich Been and Shaun Micheel, but things have been rather different in recent years. It was won in 2011 by Keegan Bradley, in 2012 and 2014 by McIlroy, in 2013 by Jason Dufner, in 2015 by Jason Day, in 2016 by Jimmy Walker and last year by Thomas. And it would be a huge surprise if one of the game’s top players does not end up hoisting the Wannamaker Trophy aloft this week.
Johnson will start as favourite, but McIlroy is desperate to salvage something from another disappointing season, Justin Rose is long overdue another major, Tommy Fleetwood looks ready to join that elite club, Day is back to his best, Hideki Matsuyama must turn the corner again soon, Francesco Molinari is in the form of his life and Woods heads into the week as a proper and serious contender.
Rose and McIlroy flattered to deceive at Carnoustie, despite the fact that they were part of the group who finished joint second. Rose is to be applauded because he would be the first to admit that he was not playing his best golf - indeed he had to hole a birdie putt at the 18th to make the cut. But he still managed to conjure up his best ever finish at The Open. It is a measure of the way the man always seems to be able to put a score together.
McIlroy continues to thrill and frustrate in equal measure. He hits the ball a mile, produces one glorious iron shot after another - and then he gets onto the green and you get the sense that just about anything could happen. He putted really poorly at Carnoustie and yet somehow finished the week just two shots short of Molinari. If he can ever find the answer to his putting woes he would be unbeatable.
But Woods is the story. If the 42-year-old can finally land his 15th major there would not be a dry eye in the house. He polarises opinion in a way he did not manage even when he was in his prime. There are those who still wonder what all the fuss is about, who ask why we all get so excited about a man whose personal life has at times been shameful.. They say golf doesn’t need Woods - and they may well be right.
And then there are the rest of us, who rejoice in the fact that he is out there playing the game again, this time with a genuine smile on his face, coming close to reaching those impossible standards, producing those miraculous shots that took our breath away.
We wonder at the fact that a man who has been through all those surgeries, who has had fusion surgery on his back - a procedure that would have finished off many a lesser man - has been able to drag his battered body through the grind, has been able to get himself back into the world’s top 50 and is on the verge of a highly unlikely recall to the American Ryder Cup team.
If he could win at Bellerive it would be a story for the ages, the comeback to end all comebacks. And do you know what? After the run he made at The Open, there are many of us who believe he might just do it.
To Win: Rory McIlroy. Would turn around another nearly year
Each Way: Tiger Woods. He couldn’t, could he? He could!
Each Way: Dustin Johnson. Just a really impressive specimen
Rory McIlroy. Praying for a good week on the greens
Tiger Woods. Getting closer and closer
Dustin Johnson. Seems to have no weaknesses
Jordan Spieth. Would love to complete Grand Slam this week
Matt Kuchar. Just keeps rolling along
Justin Rose. Sure to finish in the top 10
Tommy Fleetwood. Belong in this company
Justin Thomas. Determined to make stout defence
Aaron Wise. Hugely promising youngster
Daniel Berger. Ready to turn the corner
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