The US PGA Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
TIGER WOODS will arrive at Bethpage Black near New York to launch his bid for the US PGA Championship having not struck a competitive shot since his remarkable victory at The Masters last month. He was expected to play in the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow but decided against it. It is a stark reminder that the 15-time major champion’s body is no longer up to the wear and tear of a full season and that he must pick and choose the tournaments in which he competes.
There will be a huge amount of attention on the veteran American as he attempts to land his 16th major and move within two of Jack Nicklaus. It is not known how much work he has been able to do at home in the build-up to a tournament played on a course where he has won in the past, claiming the 2002 US Open. And he has been getting in some preparation at the course ahead of the tournament in the company of Phil Mickelson, whom he beat in 2002.
He will, of course, start the week as one of the favourites but it would be an almost superhuman effort should he be able to pull it off. He has admitted that he feels pain every day of his life, which has prevented him from continuing with the gym work that singled him out from his rivals when he was in his prime. It also means that he needs to be careful about the number of balls he hits in practice. He has already withdrawn from one tournament this season because of a neck injury and knows that he has to carefully manage his body and his playing schedule.
After his victory at Augusta he was spotted limping and social media lit up, wondering if his back was causing him problems once again. Woods has denied it and claims he is as fit as he is ever going to be. We will not have long to wait to find out.
The tournament has been brought forward to May from its traditional August slot to avoid clashing with the opening round of fixtures in the NFL. It also means that the PGA Tour season will end earlier. It means that the final major of the season will now be The Open Championship and, for the first time, there will be a major every month from April.
"It's been our stated objective for several years to create better sequencing of our tournaments that golf fans around the world can engage in from start to finish," said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. "And by concluding at the end of August, the FedEx Cup play-offs no longer have the challenge of sharing the stage with college and professional football.” To us in Britain it may seem somewhat bizarre that professional golf takes second billing to college football, but Monahan and his colleagues know what they are doing.
There are those who believe this is the weakest of the four majors on account of the fact that the field includes a number of club professionals who have little or no chance of winning. But they have come through a gruelling qualification process and deserve their place. And each and every one of the world’s top 100 players will be in the field to make life as difficult as possible for Woods.
It has been largely overlooked that Jordan Spieth will attempt to write his own place in golf history as he attempts to complete a career grand slam and join an elite club comprising Nicklaus, Woods, Gene Saracen, Ben Hogan and Gary Player as the only men to have won all four of golf’s majors. In any other season Spieth would be among the favourites but he is unlikely to merit a mention among possible winners as he continues to endure the most miserable run of form of his stellar career.
World number one Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy will start the week as favourites, and quite rightly too. Brooks Koepka, the defending champion, finished second to Woods at Augusta and played some glorious golf at the Byron Nelson Classic He has already won three majors but for reasons that your correspondent fails to understand, he remains one of the most underrated golfers on the planet - and it hurts him. Like Johnson and McIlroy, he hits the ball a mile, but you don’t win the US Open twice and the the US PGA Championship unless you also have a brilliant all-round game. And Koepka simply has no weaknesses.
He was named Player of the Year by his peers at the end of last season but he has failed to capture the hearts of golf fans.
McIlroy will be playing in his first major as a 30-year-old and is looking to end a drought that now goes all the way back to 2014, when he won both The Open and the US PGA. It is scarcely credible that a player with some God-given talent has not won a major for almost five years. Ask any golf fan to name the most naturally gifted professional golfer on the planet and most will plump for McIlroy. At his best, he is almost unbeatable, but frailties have appeared in his game, most notably on the putting surface, where he continues to struggle when the pressure is really on. He has shown some terrific form in 2019, winning the Players Championship in superb fashion. But he failed to get going at The Masters as his latest bid to land a career grand slam ended in disappointment.
His preparation for Bethpage was also not what he would have had in mind. He played in the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, one of his favourite courses and a layout on which he has won twice in the past, and was in contention after 54 holes. All the smart money was on McIlroy winning the tournament for the third time. Ahead of him were two players who had never won on the PGA Tour before. They were the ones who were expected to fold. Instead, it was McIlroy who crumpled again, finishing with a 73 and ending the week in a tie for eighth place.
More encouraging was the form of England’s Justin Rose, who finished in a tie for third place, showing a welcome return to the form that took him to the top of the world rankings this year. He missed the cut at The Masters for the first time in his career and admitted afterwards that he was shocked. Until that point, he had a wonderful record at Augusta. It was definitely not what he had in mind. Rose surprised the golfing world last year when, having used TaylorMade clubs to achieve his success, he announced that he was signing a deal with Japanese manufacturer Honma, who are determined to make their mark and were happy to give Rose a huge contract. After some teething problems, he is clearly now back to his best and will surely be a factor on a golf course that requires a strategic approach - and there is no better player in the world on a course where par will be regarded as a good score.
Bearing that in mind, it is impossible to ignore the claims of Matt Kuchar, playing the best golf of his life after turning 40 and following a bitterly disappointing 2018, where he failed to make the field for the Tour Championship. Kuchar has had more than his fair share of problems off the course this year but on it he is like a man possessed and he has everything it takes to finally secure his maiden major success. He is one of the straightest hitters in the business, which means he is going to be playing most of his approach shots from the right place, and he is also a far better putter than most people give him credit for. And, of course, his confidence is sky high.
And don’t write off Mickelson either. He has twice finished second in US Opens here, in 2002 and again in 2009. And he continues to defy the years. If he can keep the ball in play he will be a contender.
Rory McIlroy. Desperate to end his major drought
Tiger Woods. Full of confidence
Dustin Johnson. Needs to avoid one of those meltdowns
Rory McIlroy. If he drives well he is difficult to beat
Tiger Woods. Back where he belongs
Dustin Johnson. Looking to win his second major - and it is overdue
Brooks Koepka. Determined to make another successful title defence
Tommy Fleetwood. Would be a big surprise if he is not in contention
Justin Rose. Course is made for him
Phil Mickelson. Has good memories of Bethpage
Matt Kuchar. In the form of his life
Sergio Garcia. Showing some decent form once again
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