This week, for the final time, the PGA Championship assumes its position as the season’s final major; the tournament taking up a new May slot on the schedule from 2019. It’s the centennial edition of the tournament played out for the Wannamaker Trophy, and the field is befitting of such a special event, with 98 of the world’s top 100 players teeing it up (only Joost Luiten and Bernd Wiesberger miss out through injury). Sadly, the TV companies in the UK & Ireland seem to have overlooked this fact and sports fans will be forced to watch online at new company ElevenSports, who only launched their website and app this week – what could possibly go wrong?
The event dubbed Glory’s Last Shot by the US media has produced top class winners over the past 15 years, with defending champion Justin Thomas the latest in a long line of players in the world’s top 10 to claim the event. In fact, since 2003, only Jimmy Walker, Jason Dufner, Keegan Bradley and YE Yang – who so memorably stared down and beat peak-era Tiger Woods in 2009 – were not ranked in the top 10 in the world during the week of their wins, so this is an event which regularly goes to the best in the world.
Given the form being displayed by those at the head of the game, it’s a trend which could very well continue this week, especially given the major championship pedigree of host course Bellerive.
Bellerive Country Club, based in St Louis, Missouri, has twice before hosted major championships – the 1965 US Open, won by all time great Gary Player, completing his career grand slam, and the 1992 PGA Championship, won by then world number 1 Nick Price. The Trent Jones designed 7,300 yard par 70 (which underwent a 2006 re-design by his son Reece) is a classic parkland layout, albeit an extremely long one with just two par 5s (both measuring over 590 yards) and six par 4s in excess of 450 yards. The Zoysiagrass fairways – a fairly rare surface by PGA Tour standards – are tree-lined, and often dog-legged, whilst water is in play across a number of holes, potentially punishing any wayward approach shots. The Bentgrass greens are massive and multi-tiered, and one of the key themes of the week will be players ensuring they are hitting the right areas of the greens with their approach shots. Prior to 2013’s Senior PGA Championship, Bernhard Langer was asked if lag putting would be key on the week, he answered:
“yes, but good iron play is more important. Hit the right quadrant (of the greens) and you’ll have a chance to make birdie. Hit the wrong part and you’re worrying about a three putt.”
When one of the game’s great thinkers gives such a pointer that approach play is vital, it’d be remiss not to take that into account.
The afore-mentioned Justin Thomas, who arrives off the back of a win at Firestone, another Trent Jones design, played the course at a media day earlier this year and was firm in his belief that the course was one at which driving would be all important.
“It’s a great driving course, kind of long doglegs that you have to kind of drive it, fit it in here. It’s not like everyone’s playing to the same spot. You can take some bunkers on. Driving is going to be a premium.”
Given this statement, I’m also putting a heavy weighting on strokes gained off-the-tee.
The Firestone (home of the WGC-Bridgestone) link is well worth considering too. In four of the past six years, players who have won the PGA Championship have played in the final two groups on Sunday at Firestone and each of the past 11 winners have finished inside the top 30.
Clearly showing good form the week before is always a positive, but potentially even more so this week given both courses are Trent Jones designs. Whilst I am not always one for trends, I do feel there is a natural merit in this one so have weighted good performance last week accordingly.
Another consideration is the weather and conditions facing players this week. After months of hot weather, St Louis looks to be in the midst of thunderstorm season currently, with inclement weather expected all the way up to Thursday and again on Sunday. This should serve to create receptive greens, with pictures doing the rounds on Twitter showing huge plug marks on the greens, even from players hitting their approaches out of the rough. There is a decent chance that lift, clean and place may factor and if that came to fruition, there’d be even more of a premium on driving the ball well.
With all of the above said, I have settled on three picks this week. Two of whom fit the bill of playing out of the last two groups last week and being ranked top 10 in the world.
My first pick is Rory McIlroy (14.5), who looks to be back towards his best and whom should find the course very much to his liking in conditions he relishes. The Northern Irishman played some fantastic golf through 54 holes at Firestone, to find himself teeing off in the final pairing on Sunday before a final round 73 took him out of contention.
His tee-to-green game was as imperious as ever and, encouragingly, he ranked 7th in strokes gained: putting for the week, a definite plus given that it is so often the flatstick that lets him down.
The Firestone performance followed a runner up finish at Carnoustie, where he very much passed the eye test, and with wet conditions mirroring those encountered during his eight shot victories at both the 2011 US Open at Congressional and 2012 PGA Championship victory at Kiawah Island, he’ll feel very confident of picking up the Wannamaker Trophy for the third time. A winner at East Lake, another Reece Jones re-design featuring Zoysiagrass fairways and Bentgrass greens, the world number 5 has struggled to close the door of late – his Sunday struggles last week being a case in point – but he’s contended at both the Masters and the Open already this season and it’s surely only a matter of time until he strings all four rounds together and collects his fifth major.
Bellerive should suit as well as any venue, and at a fair price we’re sure to get a good run for our money.
Next up I’m backing Jason Day (23.0) to repeat his winning 2015 PGA Championship performance this week.
Similarly to McIlroy, the 30 year old Australian was bang in contention after 54 holes last week, playing in the penultimate grouping on Sunday before a final round 73 saw him finish tied for 10th. The world number 10 was outstanding with his iron play, finishing 5th on the week in strokes gained: approach, which is a huge positive for him given his season long ranking in that stat is 130th, so a repeat of his Firestone form would surely have him on the leaderboard again come Sunday.
The best putter in the world over the past few years, Day is also no slouch off the tee, averaging over 310 yards and ranking 42nd in strokes gained. Twice a winner at another Reece Jones re-design Torrey Pines, Day tends to pick and choose his events wisely, aiming to peak for the majors and a record of four top 10s in the past five PGA Championships indicates that the way the PGA of America sets up its courses really suits his eye.
A two time winner on Tour already this year, he’s too talented not to add to his solitary major success and this could be the week he doubles his tally.
My final pick for this week is Gary Woodland (151.0). The world number 44 won in Phoenix earlier this season, for his first win since 2013, which is significant given 16 of the past 19 winners of the PGA Championship had won a prior event in the season of their win. However, it was his performance last week, which sparked more interest for me as he finished tied for 17th off the back on an outstanding driving and tee-to-green performance, leading the field in strokes gained: off-the-tee and ranking 4th in greens in regulation.
Long one of the games biggest hitters, the burly American should be perfectly suited by conditions and looks to enjoy courses which have had the Reece Jones touch, as evidenced by top 10 finishes at Eastlake and Bethpage Black in the past couple of years.
Against him is a terrible majors record, with just 5 top 25 finishes and no top 10s in 27 events, but he is too classy not to eventually figure it out and contend at a top event. This could well be his week at a huge price.
- Rory McIlroy – 3 points win @ 14.5 (lay 3 points @ 3.0)
- Jason Day – 2 points win @ 23.0 (lay 3 points @ 3.0)
- Gary Woodland – 1 point win @ 151.0 (lay 8 points @ 11.0)
Ollie joined Jesse May and Neil Channing on the Matchbook Betting Podcast where he put forward the case for 3 match-up selections.