The PGA Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
INEVITABLY, Rory McIlroy’s return to winning ways at the Wells Fargo Championship will see him installed as one of the favourites to win the PGA Championship, all the more so because it is being played at Kiawah Island, where he won the same tournament by eight shots in 2012.
But before anybody gets carried away with the Northern Irishman’s prospects of landing a fifth major, we should remember that it is 2014 since he secured the most recent of those titles. And he is carrying a great deal of scar tissue. He would also be the first to admit that although he won at Quail Hollow he is still not at his best. He hit just four fairways in the final round on the way to a 68 and a one-shot victory over Abraham Ancer.
Kiawah Island is a fearsome test. You may remember that it reduced Mark Calcavecchia to tears at the Ryder Cup in 1991. And he was a member of a winning US team!
McIlroy will know that if he is to have any chance of success he simply must find more fairways.
What was most encouraging about his performance at Quail Hollow was his putting - he didn’t miss a single putt of less than six feet all week. And his iron-play was finally dialled in once more. It is clear that the work he has been doing with Pete Cowen is starting to pay dividends but don’t run away with the idea that this is the golfer who dominated the game between 2011 and 2014. He has developed an unfortunate habit of starting majors poorly. If he is to have any chance of contending at Kiawah Island tt is absolutely vital that he gets off to a good start. And if the winds blows you can forget his chances on account of his high ball flight.
In 2012 he enjoyed a record-breaking victory courtesy of a birdie on the final hole. It was a record that had stood since Jack Nicklaus won in 1980 by seven strokes. McIlroy started the final round with a three stroke lead and shot a bogey-free 66 to run away from the field. At the time, he was 22 and became the youngest multiple major champion since Seve Ballesteros claimed The Masters in 1980. McIlroy's win also regained him the world's number one ranking. Heady days indeed.
Xander Schauffele has not won since January 2019 but he is the man I fancy to land his first major. There is a perception that he is in something of a slump at the moment, but the reality is rather different. He is fourth in the FedEx Cup standings and fourth in the world rankings. How? Check this out: in 14 starts this season he has missed just one cut and racked up an incredible 12 top 25 finishes, including three runner-up spots and six top 10s. In other words, he is one of the most consistent players in the game right now and he has very few weaknesses.
A look at Schauffele’s stats tell the story - he averages 306 yards from the tee, is fourth in scoring average, fourth in birdies per round and second in sand saves. Oh, and he has pocketed $4.5m in prize money. Without a win!
Ancer has also got to be worth an each-way flutter. The Mexican is still looking for his first PGA Tour victory but it cannot possibly be too far away. He finished second to McIlroy at Quail Hollow, his fourth top-10 finish of another outstanding season. He has two huge strengths - his accuracy from the tee and his ability to find greens in regulations. Ancer hist 72.31% of all fairways, which makes him the second most accurate driver of a golf ball on Tour, and finds 70.40% of greens in regulation - and that means he gives himself a LOT of birdie opportunities. He is one of the shorter hitters but still averages 290.5 yards from the tee, and when you are playing most of your second shots from the middle of the fairway it is a much easier game. By comparison, Bryson DeChambeau hits just 55% of fairways.
DeChambeau leads the Tour in driving distance, but his driving accuracy percentage sees him languish in 136th place, and that is a weakness that will surely be magnified at the Ocean Course.
He has won twice this season, but it's still been an up and down year for the US Open champion. He's coming off back-to-back finishes outside the top 40, including a disappointing 46th-place finish at The Masters. He also missed the cut at the Genesis Invitational in February, before bouncing back with a win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Even with his prodigious power, DeChambeau's 1.752 putting average doesn't even rank among the top 75 on the PGA Tour.
PGA Championship Content
The bookies don’t fancy defending champion Collin Morikawa - you can get him at a very generous 25-1. Morikawa won this tournament at TPC Harding Park last year in just his second career start in a major. This year, he enters the Ocean Course playing his best stretch of golf with four top-10 finishes, including one win, over his last nine events.
Morikawa has no weaknesses and ranks among the top 10 in driving accuracy percentage (70.45) and greens in regulation percentage (72.85). No one on tour has gained more strokes in approaching the green, which has helped him reach a 4.64 birdie average, fourth-best among all golfers. The Ocean Course is one of the most difficult in the world with its tree-lined holes and breezy conditions, and Morikawa's game is made to measure for it.
And keep an eye on Jordan Spieth, who has just recorded his seventh top 10 finish of the season. If he wins he will complete the career grand slam and join an elite group. At the beginning of the year you would have given him no chance. It’s a very different story now.
Perhaps the best bet for a European victory lies in the hands of Norway’s Viktor Hovland. He is a sensation who is certain to make a huge impression for Europe at the Ryder Cup later this year. Blessed with a fabulous temperament, the Norwegian seems to contend every time he plays. Pundits criticise his short game but he won the Mayakoba Classic (his second PGA Tour success) and finished second at the WGC-Workday Championship and Farmers Insurance Open, and he chipped and putted superbly in finishing third at the Wells Fargo Championship.
Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course is a brute, most famous for hosting the 1991 Ryder Cup - The War on the Shore - in which the USA narrowly defeated Europe after Bernhard Langer missed a six-foot putt on the final green against Hale Irwin. Had he holed it, the teams would have been tied at 14-14 and Europe would have retained the trophy. The course was designed by Pete Dye and features plenty of water and bunkers. It measures more than 7,800 yards from the back tees. The wind often blows in from the Atlantic Ocean so favours shotmakers - 10 holes hug the coastline.
The tournament was won in 2015 by Jason Day, in 2016 by Jimmy Walker, in 2017 by Justin Thomas, in 2018 and 2019 by Brooks Koepka and in 2020 by Collin Morikawa.
You may be tempted to go for Jon Rahm, who has had nine top-10 finishes this season, but he struggled at Quail Hollow, missing his first cut in a year. And he is not known for his patience. Steer clear of the Spaniard.
Jordan Spieth has seven top 10s, including a victory and two third places. He has rediscovered his touch with his short irons - and nobody is better on the greens when it really matters.
Viktor Hovland is regarded by many as the next big thing from Europe. His form this season has been sensational, with a victory, two runner-up finishes and two third places. And NOBODY has a better temperament.
Xander Schauffele may not have won this season but he has finished runner-up on three occasions and definitely has the game to win a major.
Xander Schauffele. Only thing missing from his CV is a major.
Jordan Spieth. Back to his best.
Rory McIlroy. Crucial that he gets off to a good start.
Xander Schauffele. As consistent as they come.
Jordan Spieth. His driver is the key.
Rory McIlroy. Needs to hole a few putts early on.
Viktor Hovland. Has no weaknesses.
Bryson DeChambeau. Impossible to ignore him.
Matt Wallace. Now at home on American soil.
Antoine Rozner. Two-time European Tour winner - hugely underrated.
Victor Perez. Frenchman is a big-time player.
Christiaan Bezuidenhout. Big-hitting South African.
Jason Kokrak. Transformed since winning the CJ Cup last year
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