Big Guns Primed For Battle At PGA Championship The Big Picture

Big Guns Primed For Battle At PGA Championship

All eyes will be on Quail Hollow, North Carolina this weekend for the PGA Championship. The final major of 2017 promises to be a fascinating affair with several of the world’s top players finding form just at the right time, says eir sport resident golf expert Cian O’Callaghan.

At 7,600 yards, Quail Hollow is a whopper of a course for a par 71. And, with rain and thunderstorms expected this weekend, it will heavily favour the bombers.

Quail Hollow has hosted the Wells Fargo Championship since 2003, so there is plenty to be drawn from each player's history on the course. It didn't stage the event this year in preparation for the PGA. The putting surfaces have been changed from bent grass to Bermuda, it’s worth considering results on courses with similar greens when trying to pick a winner. A lot of the trees have been cut back to help the new greens to bed in which means that there is less of a premium on accuracy off the tee. But length is still a big, big factor here.

Current form is remains the ultimate indicator of who will contend in the final major of the season, with eight of the last ten winners having recorded a top-10 finish in one of their previous two starts. And, aside from last year's high-odds champion, Jimmy Walker, each of the last seven PGA winners had finished inside the top-22 at the preceding week's WGC Bridgestone at Firestone.


Contenders

The best place to start analysing the contenders is with the clear favourite, Rory McIlroy. With two victories and other high finishes at Quail Hollow, the Northern Irishman is patently a course specialist, with his two wins of the runaway victory variety. The 28-year-old is looking for his third Wanamaker Trophy and, after a sluggish season, his top-fives at Birkdale and last week's WGC should be indicators that he's heading in the right direction again at last. However, doubts remain around his putting, his caddy situation and how he has adapted to his new equipment. But he has the experience and the game to pulverise all opposition here.

Although McIlroy is the favourite, there has been plenty of talk about Open champion Jordan Spieth. Indeed, it could be said that the Texan’s triumph at Royal Birkdale last month showed that for certain players all the stats, history and trends mean nothing. They simply don't apply to a genius. While it would be crazy to think that he has no chance of completing the career grand slam here at such a young age, his relative lack of distance leaves him at a distinct disadvantage at Quail Hollow. But rule him out at your peril.

Other key contenders include player of the moment Hideki Matusyama and the world number one Dustin Johnson. Both have strong claims. Matsuyama has proved in the past that when he's hot, he stays hot and with a second place at the US Open, a T14 at Birkdale and his brilliant stroll to the WGC title last weekend, he could well mount a serious challenge for his first major.


Dusty, meanwhile, hasn't been the same since a fall ruled him out of the Masters. A missed cut at the US Open and a T54 at Birkdale were very disappointing but his T17 at Firestone – which included a 68-66 at the weekend – hints he could be about to explode into life again. And, with his power – witness his ridiculous 469-yard drive last week – he could be the man to conquer this course.

Big hitters

Another player with a notable record at Quail Hollow is Rickie Fowler. The popular Californian enjoyed his first victory on tour at the Wells Fargo and has a couple of other high-placed results. But, having fallen away badly on the final day at the opening two majors of this season, it is still a big question as to whether the 29-year-old could finally claim one of the game's greatest prizes. He will have fewer more favourable courses to do so than Quail Hollow.


Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm will also fancy their chances on a course that will favour the big-hitters. The reigning US Open champion has placed well at the last two PGAs and will be looking to go one better this time out. Jason Day is finally showing signs of coming back to form, but it’s hard to see him going all the way this weekend. Likewise, Paul Casey who will probably feature on the leaderboard at some stage, but usually finds his way out of contention come Sunday.

History


The PGA Championship was first staged back in 1916 and was a match-play event until 1958 when it was changed to stroke-play. Over the years it has featured some of the most remarkable and memorable moments in the history of golf, with some truly titanic battles that will be remembered for many years to come.

Twice Tiger Woods went toe-to-toe down the back nine before finally emerging triumphant. In 1999 it was a goofy youngster from Spain named Sergio Garcia who provided the opposition. Despite his miracle shot on the 16th which saw him bound down the fairway after the ball, this year’s Masters champion eventually succumbed to Woods by a single stroke.


A year later it was journeyman pro Bob May who stood in his way at Valhalla. This was Woods in his pomp in a year in which he gobbled up three major titles and would go on to complete the Tiger Slam the following April by winning the Masters to hold all four majors at the same time. May matched Woods drive-for-drive and putt-for-putt all the way down the back nine to force a play-off, but Woods showed his mettle to retain the title.

Nine years later, Woods went into the final round in the lead for the 15th time in a major. On all other 14 occasions he had sealed the deal and it seemed like a foregone conclusion this time as well. However, little-known South Korean Y.E. Yang stayed in touch with the world number one and drew level with five holes remaining. Yang then chipped in for eagle on the short par-four 14th to take the lead which he did not relinquish, finishing with a flourish, a stunning 210+ yard drawn approach on 18, which travelled around a tree to 10 feet. Woods ended with a bogey and a three-shot deficit, his invincibility on major Sundays shattered. He has yet to win another.


In terms of shaking up the established order, nobody can rival John Daly at the 1991 PGA. "Wild Thing' was the ninth alternate to even get into the event, but a string of late withdrawals saw him drive through the night to make it to Crooked Stick and take his place on the Thursday morning. The flamboyant Daly produced a display of long hitting which was fearless and unprecedented in equal measure on his way to a three-shot win, surely the biggest upset in major history.

Harrington’s triumph

Having successfully defended his British Open the previous month, Padraig Harrington went into the 2008 event at Oakland Hills as one of the favourites. However, a sluggish couple of opening rounds saw him miles off the pace on a course posing a seriously tough challenge. At the halfway point only JB Holmes was under par which makes Harrington's play over the weekend even more remarkable. The Dubliner carded a 66 on Saturday to shoot up the leaderboard to a tie for fourth and some stunning play on Sunday saw him edge closer to playing partner Garcia and overnight leader, 2001 British Open champion Ben Curtis.


Garcia's long wait for a major title looked like it was finally coming to an end, but Harrington hung in there and when Garcia, who had a blemish-free card for the first 15 holes, finally cracked under the weight of the pressure by finding water on the 16th, he lost control of the championship.

Harrington sank clutch putts on the final three holes, including a quite brilliant 18-footer for par on 18 which rendered Garcia’s own par putt irrelevant. It meant Curtis couldn't catch him either and prompted a raw, fist-pumping celebration from the Dubliner which is still remembered to this day.

Let’s hope for something equally memorable this weekend.

eir sport will show all four days of the PGA Championship from Quail Hollow from August 10th-13th. Coverage begins at 6pm Irish time on eir sport 1 this Thursday.

Times: Thursday: 18:00-00:30; Friday: 18:00-00:30; Saturday: 19:00-00:30; Sunday: 19:00-00:30

Images: Getty

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