It's been a hugely profitable year so far for Ben Coley, who has six selections for the PGA Championship where Jordan Spieth could be about to make history.
5pts win Jordan Spieth at 16/1 (William Hill, bet365, BetVictor)
3pts win Dustin Johnson at 20/1 (William Hill, bet365)
1pt e.w. Tommy Fleetwood at 60/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Marc Leishman at 60/1 (Betfair, Paddy Power 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)
1pt e.w. Shane Lowry at 90/1 (Unibet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Matt Jones at 150/1 (Sky Bet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11)
In years to come, we may look back on this curious time as that which convinced those in charge of golf to add a fifth men's major to the calendar. The arguments for doing so vary depending on who you read, but first among them should be a desire to take the sport to all corners of the globe. After Hideki Matsuyama became the first Japanese man to win at the highest level, there is surely no better time to do it, and do it properly.
Arguments against might include something about saturation, but that was being tested even before the pandemic, because in moving the PGA Championship from August to May in 2019, men's major season was narrowed from four months to three. Now, we have reached the fifth such event in a run of seven which, when completed at Royal St George's this summer, will have spanned less than 11 months. And not one of us gives a solitary shank.
When major number five does come along, god forbid it be The PLAYERS Championship, which is just fine as it is. Where major number four is concerned, there can be absolutely no doubt: despite being younger than the Masters Tournament, last in line — and yes, this is a bit like picking between children — is the PGA Championship, whose 103rd edition begins on Thursday.
But while this one may not boast the iconography of a Masters, the traditionalism of an Open or the brutalism of a US Open, it is just as comfortable in its own skin. Thanks in recent years to the stewardship of Kerry Haigh, the PGA of America has done a largely solid job, concerning itself more with entertainment than par. Now, in returning to Kiawah Island, its stature as a tournament is matched by the golf course upon which the strongest field of the year will battle for the Wanamaker Trophy.
Kiawah Island was made famous by 1991's War on the Shore, an ill-tempered Ryder Cup battle which went to the wire, but was seen more recently in 2012, when Rory McIlroy removed all such tension with a thoroughly dominant display. That was major number two, and it took only two more years for McIlroy to double his tally; however hard these are to win — and they are harder than most appear to believe they are to win — few would've imagined that a further seven years would pass without the Northern Irishman securing his own fifth major.
Some will believe that Kiawah Island is the ideal place to end the drought, and what's certain is that McIlroy, who romped home by eight, has timed his return to perfection. Last time out he held firm to win again at Quail Hollow, another long course which he loves and which happens to be in the neighbouring state, and he'll walk taller here. He'll also need to play better, but that room for improvement in his long-game might be seen as a positive and he is entitled to favouritism, despite having disappointed as fifth-favourite in the Masters.
Part of the case for McIlroy is that at 7,876 yards, Kiawah Island will earn the dubious distinction of being the longest course in major history, one it has held before and which until now was on loan to Erin Hills (2017 US Open). Rewind to 2012 and all the talk was of the advantage held by the power players, so the fact that McIlroy won, that Bubba Watson was 11th, that John Daly could finish 18th and Robert Garrigus 21st, fits in with what was the obvious narrative. With soft conditions, no wonder a player like McIlroy thrived.
And yet power was not dominant. McIlroy was in a class of his own, striping it but also leading the field in scrambling and among the best putters, yet second went to David Lynn, a short-hitting Englishman. In a share of third was Ian Poulter, in seventh were Blake Adams and Steve Stricker, and in 11th, alongside Watson, was Tim Clark. If there is an overriding feature of that leaderboard, one which ties in with the man atop it, it is more to do with form on links courses and a generally European theme than it is brute force.
Therein lies the logic behind my approach. Kiawah Island, on the Atlantic coast of South Carolina, is an exposed course where locals say the wind always blows. Thanks to the input of designer Pete Dye's wife, Alice, it is raised aloft to ensure the ocean is in view, and with that its exposure to the elements is increased. To win here demands a level of comfort in the wind which McIlroy has, and with that in mind it's his fellow Open champion JORDAN SPIETH who is backed to make history.
Spieth, again like McIlroy, is in pursuit of a career grand slam, having won the Masters and the US Open in 2015, and then a Claret Jug two years later. Were he to win here, the Texan would join Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player (not that he likes to talk about it), Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in the sport's most exclusive club.
Some might see that as a negative, but I don't think it will stop him from contending and it's hopefully something we can worry about come Sunday's back-nine. Don't forget, we're talking about a player of extraordinary mental resolve, whose clear thinking was as important a part of that dramatic Open win as the magic in his hands, and I do not believe he will fail due to the weight of history.
With that established, the case for Spieth taking to Kiawah Island looks strong. Firstly he has always been an excellent wind player, which is tied into the fact his iron play is of the highest class when he's on. And he certainly is on: after a prolonged struggle which saw him drop to 92nd in the world, he's finished in the top 15 in eight of his subsequent nine starts, winning once, and it took an extraordinary and anomalous short-game display to keep him away from the top of the leaderboard at Sawgrass.
Secondly, he lists seashore paspalum — the rare and slow grass which is a feature at this course — as a surface he's comfortable on. There's limited evidence to support that but he's certainly proven on slower surfaces, having won the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay and then the Open at Birkdale, two exposed, links-style courses which in different ways tapped into his love of the artistic side of the game.
Chambers Bay in particular could be a useful guide, and so too could Whistling Straits where, later that same year, Spieth chased home Jason Day in this tournament. Like Kiawah Island, Whistling Straits is a Dye design and while it's in Wisconsin, it is exposed and sits along a stretch of Lake Michigan. Bubba Watson, runner-up there in 2010 before playing well here a couple of years later, said the courses were almost the same.
Spieth could only watch and admire Day's long, high, straight driving on what proved to be a soft and calm test that week, and there's a risk he is outmuscled on this beast of a course. I tend not to think so, however, and am hopeful that his imagination is a key asset around these raised greens and their shaved run-offs, again a feature of several of the courses on which he's proven most effective.
Providing he can find the right lines off the tee, a real challenge posed by Dye who likes to hide space and make players uncomfortable, Spieth can prove that this course is ideal for a game which gets better once the tee shots are dealt with. On that we can't quite be sure, but when it comes to timing, his could be just as ideal as McIlroy's.
Last week, Spieth returned to action close to home, finishing ninth on his first appearance since Augusta, where he was third. In doing so he revealed that he'd contracted coronavirus in the interim, which is reason enough to forgive him the obvious signs of rust which ensured that a bright start didn't quite carry through to the desired finish in an event he'd dearly love to win.
Still, in terms of preparing for a major championship, it might have been perfect. Spieth was ultimately delighted, having been a little unsure of himself entering the week, and there are parallels with Dustin Johnson's return effort in the Houston Open before he went on to win the Masters in emphatic style last November. Like Spieth, Johnson had been forced to take a break during a busy time of year having also contracted Covid-19, and it proved to be a blessing in disguise.
All three major wins so far have come soon after a victory, and on the back of a top-10 finish, so everything is in place for the best shot at history he's so far had since his first, in 2017. Four years on and rejuvenated by that victory in the Texas Open, Spieth is playing like one of the very best in the world once again. He looks to hold a mighty chance here and is worth backing.
Those lines I've drawn to Whistling Straits and Chambers Bay evoke memories of DUSTIN JOHNSON's failure to win at both courses, and while he arrives here under something of a cloud I think his price is plain wrong, so he goes in with Spieth as part of a two-pronged attack from the front of the betting.
Johnson drifted to a whopping 30/1 last summer before winning the Travelers, but since then has established himself as the best player in the sport and I'm really surprised we can take 18 and 20/1 for an event in his home state, on a long course, where an ability to play well in the wind looks vital, and where he looks to hold as strong a chance as anyone.
Yes, his form has tapered off since winning in Saudi Arabia (on seashore paspalum, for whatever that is worth), but while in February and March it was his driver which caused him issues, lately it's been his short-game. In his two starts since missing the cut at Augusta he has in fact ranked first and third in strokes-gained off-the-tee, and there was marked improvement in his iron play from the first to the second.
If he takes another step forward in that department, Johnson could be back producing the ball-striking numbers which make him the player that he is. And if we do get that kind of performance from tee-to-green, the odds available will look extraordinarily generous, leaving just a workable short-game as the final piece of the jigsaw.
Some will say that his modest performance here in 2012 is a concern, but it isn't to me. Back then, Johnson was an out-of-form world number 18 looking for a major breakthrough having blown big chances in each of the preceding years. Now, he's world number one, a two-time major champion, and even a harsh view of his overall form would confirm that he's operating at a far higher level.
The main worry for me would have been his knee, which seemingly remains something of a concern and, on the face of it, justified his withdrawal from last week's Byron Nelson. Then again, Johnson was practicing at Kiawah Island on Saturday, which would be reckless if he is struggling for fitness. Could it be that having seen a troublesome weather forecast, he simply decided that he'd be better off staying in South Carolina?
As well as almost winning at Whistling Straits in 2010, when cruelly penalised on the 72nd hole (note: players can ground their clubs in bunkers here, which is good news for everyone isn't it?), Johnson is a winner at Dye's TPC River Highlands and Crooked Stick, and he's improved at Sawgrass. Indeed if you take a 50-round view he is the leader in strokes-gained total on Dye courses, falling to third if you widen the lens to a hundred.
With all of this in mind, I was tempted by him at a standout 11/1 back in December, some firms making him 7/1 favourite. Nine starts and one more victory later, it's those underlining signs of a return to form in his long-game which compel me to chance him at almost double that.
Beyond these two I'm not especially keen on the front of the market. Jon Rahm is plainly not playing well and unlike Johnson, I don't believe his price has shifted sufficiently enough to reflect recent form figures of MC-34, his two worst finishes since last August. Justin Thomas might be less suited to a windswept test although having won at Sawgrass, Dye's most famous creation, his chance is respected perhaps more than that of Bryson DeChambeau, who may be better served by Torrey Pines next month.
With Xander Schauffele short enough and Viktor Hovland having halved in price since he was selected antepost, only Patrick Reed makes serious appeal of those priced at 40/1 and shorter. Reed has won at Torrey Pines, Augusta, Bethpage and Doral, four long courses supposedly the domain of the bigger hitter, and has been on the fringes in every major since last summer's return to action, as well as at Portrush before it.
Second at Quail Hollow, where McIlroy is now a three-time winner but also where Lynn once lost a play-off, he also played nicely at Whistling Straits early on his career. If this does prove to be a test of scrambling creativity around the greens, which to some degree it might, the lawless Texan may well threaten to become a multiple major champion.
Still, the PGA Championship does have a habit of throwing up something new and TOMMY FLEETWOOD might be able to put his experience to use and win his first.
Fleetwood has had three genuine chances to win at this level in his last 15 attempts, first coping perfectly well with the lengthy challenge of Erin Hills, then with Shinnecock's severe run-offs, before chasing home Shane Lowry in the 2019 Open Championship at Royal Portrush.
A regular contender on linksland who was born in Southport and raised on a golfing diet of Hillside and Birkdale, Fleetwood's sawn-off swing is part of a pedigree which looks ideal for this. The more it blows the better, especially as his underestimated short-game (seventh in strokes-gained around-the-green this season) is capable of making the difference.
It's true that he's been a little quiet this year, and that his driver hasn't quite been dialled in, but Fleetwood has still managed to have three looks at winning in 11 starts. One of those was in the Match Play, at the Dye-designed Austin Country Club, while he also lurked behind McIlroy and Tyrrell Hatton in Abu Dhabi, and behind DeChambeau and company before a difficult final round at Bay Hill.
Perhaps the return home he enjoyed after the Masters will have had a restorative effect and the early signs are encouraging, as he again dazzled with his pitching and chipping when 14th at Quail Hollow. That's a very different course, but it once again provided a serious test and should serve as a good way to prepare for this, especially as Carolinas form was everywhere you cared to look on the 2012 PGA Championship leaderboard.
I also like the fact he's a winner at Le Golf National, where it's always fairly windy and where Lynn, Poulter, Justin Rose, Peter Hanson, Graeme McDowell and Jamie Donaldson have all been inside the top five. All of them finished inside the top 11 here nine years ago to further underline a pro-European test, and there are even some potential Portrush clues there courtesy of McDowell and Donaldson.
Seventh and fifth at Sawgrass, which Adam Scott says is similar to this in many ways albeit further inland, Fleetwood should like the course, and I like the way he spoke last time out. He knows he's not quite been at his best, but clearly believes he's not far away heading into an important stretch which will determine whether he gets to play in the Olympics.
We're definitely compensated by price, Fleetwood having been 30/1 when runner-up in the Open two summers ago, and he looks a realistic contender having also been in the mix for this title last year.
Usually, when we're presented with a links-like test in the United States, there is a caveat: it isn't actually links golf. The most glaring disparity between what's required in a typical Open Championship versus a course like Kiawah Island was covered by a number of old sages in 2012, with Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington among those keen to stress that these raised putting surfaces and slow grass don't allow the ball to be played along the ground.
That is an important distinction, one which might go against my next selection, but I still believe SHANE LOWRY has the qualities required to emulate Padraig Harrington in winning this title while still in possession of the Claret Jug.
In fact if you rewind to Portrush, which was softened by heavy rain on the eve of the tournament, several players noted that it does actually require more of a through-the-air attack than its Open-hosting cousins over in England and Scotland. Lowry, a six-shot winner don't forget, was absolutely in his element, and I think he might be here, too.
Certainly the shaved run-offs will bring his short-game creativity into things and I love the way he's hitting his irons, gaining strokes in every start since Sawgrass, where he was eighth, and really stepping up at Harbour Town, where he was ninth. Those are his best two performances of the year, and both came at Dye courses.
Ninth at Bethpage and 12th at Bellerive, Lowry boasts some really good PGA form but this will surely be his most suitable test yet, with his ability to work the ball both ways and cope with strong crosswinds another plus. And if it does play long, remember he's won a World Golf Championship at Firestone, was the man to catch after three rounds of the US Open won by Johnson at the fearsome and exposed Oakmont, and bagged a top-10 at Chambers Bay.
It's true that he's been a little underwhelming since that famous week at Portrush, but like so many Europeans he's entitled to some leeway having been forced to set up camp in Florida again just as he'd settled back in at home in Ireland. Now, his hand forced, Lowry seems intent on staying in the USA, where his daughter will soon start school, as he focuses on making the most of what he has.
"I'm very driven. I'm more driven now than I've ever been," he told Greg Allen recently. "I really want to do a lot in this game and I really feel like I've got the ability to do a lot and hopefully I can give people at home something to cheer about over the next while."
One thing I believe Lowry has which connects him to Harrington, and to someone like Danny Willett, is an ability to step up when he has to. As Willett confessed during the British Masters, sometimes that can translate to quiet weeks when out of contention and not feeling the buzz, and where Lowry is concerned it perhaps explains why he's been an infrequent winner, yet has a major and a WGC to his name.
I have high hopes that he'll make the Ryder Cup side, and he could well take care of that massive goal by winning a second major championship at a course where experience, patience and some of those skills honed by the sea in Ireland all look set to count for something.
The nature of the grass used will ensure that this isn't 'firm and fast', which players tend to say they want, right up until the moment they get it. That's a shame in some respects and is another reason why Kiawah Island perhaps isn't all that it could be, as discussed by the excellent folks at The Fried Egg in the video you'll find further up this preview.
Still, I refer back to that 2012 leaderboard and will stick fairly rigidly to a team of players who've contended in Open Championships, where greens are comparably slow, with MARC LEISHMAN next.
One of the key trends ahead of this tournament is that it often goes to a recent winner. That was the case in 2020 (Collin Morikawa) and 2018 (Brooks Koepka), while Justin Thomas (2017), Jason Day (2015), McIlroy (2012 and 2014) and Keegan Bradley (2011) were all victorious at some point earlier in the season.
To be honest, it's not something I would dwell on, especially now the tournament has moved to May, meaning there have been fewer opportunities. And as far as 'season' goes, that's complicated by the fact the PGA Tour's started in September, which means Hovland counts (won in the first week of December), but Matt Fitzpatrick, who won in the second week of December but at the end of the European Tour season, does not.
Anyway, we'd have to stretch the boundaries of acceptability to get Leishman in, as his victory came in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, where he had a teammate. Still, that performance alongside Cameron Smith confirmed the impression he made when fifth at Augusta, with a subsequent top-20 finish in Texas underlining the fact that the Australian is playing really well again.
The timing is ideal, because while he's said several times he's not fond of most USGA set-ups in the US Open, nor those of the PGA, Leishman should be suited by all three courses which remain. We know he likes Torrey Pines, where he won last year, but he's bound to enjoy Sandwich and a share of 27th here in 2012 confirms that Kiawah Island represents an opportunity as well.
"Really like it," was his verdict in a recent podcast interview. "It was soft when we played it in 2012. As far as a PGA golf course goes, it sets up as good as one will for me. I might be half a chance if I can play well. I'm excited about next week. I hope it's firm and fast."
Again, firm and fast it surely will not be, but Leishman should at least enjoy the challenge around the greens, and his approaches are certainly dialled in. His short-game numbers suggest that area is a weakness, but so often on the PGA Tour he's chipping out of thick rough. Here, just as at TPC Louisiana (Dye course) and at Augusta, where his short-game was excellent, that is not the case, and it'll suit him perfectly.
So often, major champions are players who've been in the mix previously, which Leishman was just last month, as well as in a couple of Opens, including when he lost a play-off at St Andrews. His first PGA Tour win came at a Dye course, just as his latest one did, and his performance here in 2012 was at the time his best yet in a major championship.
All of that gives him the edge over Fitzpatrick, who is playing really well and will be better served by this than last week's shootout in Texas. The issue I have is that he's yet to really feel like he's in contention for a major and the same is arguably true of Tyrrell Hatton, who looks a smashing price but does have that plus the fact he's been out since the Zurich Classic having tested positive for coronavirus potentially against him.
As you can tell, aside from those two world-class players at the top of this preview, I am keen to speculate that we could get something of a repeat of 2012, when just three Americans made the top 10, so I'll finish off with a run through the rest of the shortlist and one outsider who could go really well at a price.
Branden Grace was considered, as a Chambers Bay and Whistling Straits contender who has won this year and who shot 62 at Birkdale. He loves playing in the wind, further evidenced by his Qatar Masters and Dunhill Links titles, and returned to winning form on the paspalum greens of Puerto Rico earlier this year.
I just wonder if the latter is a bit of a red herring. Did the greens really have much to do with a victory which was set up by him holing out from a bunker on the 71st hole, in an event he started as one of the favourites? The truth of it is we have such limited form on this grass, predominantly seen in low-grade tournaments, and while it's a nice box to have ticked, my bottom line is that Grace hasn't performed at the level required for a long time now.
Arguably, MATT JONES has more substance to his form in winning the Honda Classic, and at 150/1 I'll chance that he completes the same double that McIlroy did back in 2012.
Jones was superb in that event, flushing his way to the lead on Thursday and only briefly surrendering it. As you'd probably expect, his chipping and putting was outstanding, as it generally needs to be to win at PGA National, but his approach work was also of the highest standard and it really was an all-round display.
He had been threatening for a while, for all that a five-shot romp would've been hard to see, but I've been almost as impressed by his subsequent Masters 26th, plus a very solid effort at Quail Hollow to tee him up nicely for this.
The fact that McIlroy won the same event before picking up his first PGA Championship might seem limited in significance, but the Honda has long been an event which either throws up major winners, or reminds us of their quality. In recent years it's been won by Harrington, Scott and Thomas, while further back you'll find Ernie Els and YE Yang. Sergio Garcia, Gary Woodland, Geoff Ogilvy and Lucas Glover have all gone close.
Jones's effort in the 2015 PGA Championship, at Whistling Straits, where he was the leader at halfway, is encouraging, and I don't mind his decent record in the Open Championship, either. Throw in two Australian Open titles and his CV is packed with potentially relevant form.
Very much in the 'sneaky long' category, this 41-year-old hasn't ever looked a major winner in waiting, but the same could be said of many surprise PGA champions. That he boasts a world-class short-game, ranks 22nd in bogey avoidance, and is gaining strokes through the bag, is enough to speculate that he could grab some place money and perhaps even spring a surprise.
Louis Oosthuizen and Paul Casey are unsurprising names for consideration, the latter a winner this year under difficult conditions. Casey was seriously out of sorts when missing the cut by a long way here in 2012 and returns a fitter, better, more confident player who wins in his turn, and who threatened a major breakthrough at Harding Park. Decent enough last time at the Valspar, he has to be respected.
As for Oosthuizen, his short-game has improved in recent years and, after costing himself and partner Charl Schwartzel potential victory at the Zurich Classic, he produced his best iron play since 2019 when bagging a top-10 finish at the Valspar. An Open champion with form at Chambers Bay and when second in this at Quail Hollow, he played well here in 2012 and has to be respected with such generous each-way terms.
Finally, I did think long and hard about siding with Thomas Pieters, who has placed in two majors and two World Golf Championship events, and who is striking the ball like a top-class player. He's played a lot of golf on paspalum this spring, and if this is a power-dominated event then odds of 200/1 will soon appear generous.
But if 2012 tells us anything, it's that there is more to Kiawah Island than the notoriety it will gain this week thanks to a yardage on a scorecard. Hopefully come Sunday it will have an altogether better way to distinguish itself: the place where Jordan Spieth made history.
Posted at 2000 BST on 17/05/21
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