After tipping the 30/1 winner and 125/1 runner-up last week, don't miss Ben Coley's take on the United States PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club.
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On Sunday, Justin Thomas served up a reminder that placing too much stock in one event, even in a short series of events, has its pitfalls. Class is class, and the 25-year-old oozed it again, eliminating mistakes as he coasted to a soporific but significant four-shot success. Thomas was the most prolific player in the sport last season and now has three titles this, but a near one-in-six strike-rate was demoted below a lacklustre Friday at Carnoustie in terms of importance. How else could he have been four-times the price of the favourite?
Yet for many years now, Firestone - the course at which Thomas won his first WGC title - has been so reliable a pointer towards the season's final major, that there is simply no choice but to consider last week's events at least significant, perhaps even prescient. The formula goes that at least a top-30 finish at Firestone is required if you're to win the PGA Championship and some will go even further: four of the last six winners of the PGA played in one of the last two matches on the tee on Sunday.
Such dedication to numbers isn't really my bag, but there may well be those who will narrow their focus immediately to Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Ian Poulter, a policy which gives you four in-form selections, three of whom are winners of this event. There are certainly those who are taking Firestone form very seriously, with third-placed Thorbjorn Olesen, 250/1 less than a week ago, now as short as 66/1 in places.
One way or another it's hard to get away from how difficult it has proven for anyone to complete a turnaround in form in the days which separate the two events, and the likelihood of it holding true yet again is probably increased by the return of Bellerive Country Club to the schedule.
This classical par 70, designed by Robert Trent Jones and renovated by his son, Rees, is long on the scorecard and seems likely to favour ball-strikers, just as Firestone, another Trent Jones design, indisputably does. Bellerive's greens are noted by many as the primary challenge, which does set it apart somewhat, but their multiple contours should still ensure that it's the best iron players who populate much of the leaderboard.
It's now a decade since the course was used on the PGA Tour and there's little to be gleaned from victory for Camilo Villegas over Dudley Hart, in a who's who of "oh, yeah, I remember them" types including Anthony Kim and Tim Clark. There were many arrow-straight drivers in behind the Colombian - Clark, Jim Furyk, Stephen Ames, KJ Choi, Brian Gay and Justin Leonard - but the sport has changed since then and at best it suggests power isn't everything. It's still quite something.
Otherwise it seems likely to be fairly straightforward, no great shift from the week-to-week comfort level the best in the world enjoy, and it's hard to rule out any of the elite on account of the venue being less than suitable.
11/2 - any of our selections to win
15/2 - any two players in the top five
20/1 - any four players in the top 20
70/1 - any three players in the top five
175/1 - any five players in the top 20
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"The game here is entirely aerial," says architecture expert Bradley S. Klein. "The platform structure of these bentgrass putting surfaces entails very little interior surface contour but sharp falloffs to each side. Wayward iron-shot approaches will leave stiff up-and-over recoveries." Andy Johnson agrees that we should "expect it to bring the best ball-strikers to the top" and without diminishing the least coveted of all the majors, this does feel like a very important, internationally-flavoured PGA Tour event.
For what it's worth, RTJ's other notable works include Hazeltine and the unique Valderrama and he helped redesign Congressional, Augusta, Oak Hill and Baltusrol, while Rees Jones' reconstructions include East Lake, Cog Hill, Atlanta Athletic and Oakland Hills, where, anecdotally, Villegas produced his best major finish in the 2008 PGA Championship won by Padraig Harrington.
Another tried and tested formula in this event has been to focus on winners earlier in the year. Clearly, we're now eight months into 2018 and there aren't many world-class players who have not won, but it is another way to draw a line through Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, who for many can be overlooked anyway on account of form and value respectively. Tiger Woods, Tony Finau and Henrik Stenson are others who don't cut it through lack of recent silverware.
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Ben Coley's other US PGA previews
But while most of those are easy to dismiss I can't help but start my staking plan with Jordan Spieth, despite the absence of Firestone form or any kind of trophy since he so famously won the Claret Jug last July.
Chalked up at 25/1 here, Spieth essentially gets the vote on price grounds. It was to be expected that he'd be easy-to-back after another fairly lacklustre effort last week, but I'm happy to take the bait and rely on one of the world's toughest players to, for the third time this season, find his form when it matters most.
Spieth's major record is simply remarkable. Since finishing second in the 2014 Masters, he's won them at a one-in-six strike-rate and while all three victories have followed strong build-up form, his ninth place at last month's Open Championship - where he entered the final round as a 2/1 favourite - gives me the belief that he can contend without the benefits of having done so week-in, week-out.
All the more mind-boggling is the fact that he's held the end-of-day lead so often - 17 times in total since 2014. That tells us that his meticulous preparation, even his inherent positivity, enables him to get to the top of the leaderboard and stay there, even if his latest major round clearly didn't go to plan.
We saw his close friend Thomas win last week having apparently been out of sorts and, as he alluded to, the truth is these players who consistently win titles are not usually that far away. Besides, Spieth has only played once since finishing ninth at Carnoustie and while it was a disappointing performance and it was at Firestone, bouncing back to win is not insurmountable for him.
One year ago, it was Thomas who took inspiration from Spieth to win this title and there's a definite chance that the reverse happens here, particularly as while Spieth stumbled over the closing holes last week, there was an enormous positive over the closing 36 holes, key to his inclusion here: his putting.
It's well-documented that Spieth, who appeared to make just about every mid-range birdie chance when dominating during the summer of 2015, has struggled on the greens this year. Some believe he's in a funk which will trigger a gradual drop down the world rankings, but I fully expect him to be back gaining strokes soon and that's precisely what he did on both Saturday and Sunday last week, eventually ranking 19th overall. It's a performance which bears remarkable similarities to the Travelers, where he was way down the field in preparation for the Open but, clearly, gained serious confidence.
Spieth had said prior to the Bridgestone Invitational that he'd figured things out and that was the message even in the aftermath of a disappointing missed opportunity at Carnoustie, as he said: "My stroke is there. It's back, which feels awesome. And my game all together is back. It's all there, and it's moving in the right direction. So I'm actually very pleased coming out of this week."
There is some degree of psychology at play here, but Spieth has been a pretty reliable self-assessor over the last five years. I recall him bombing out when he had a big chance to win the Byron Nelson as one example; all week there, he'd said his game didn't feel good and by the end of the tournament, it was clear why. Conversely, he exited the 2017 US Open telling anyone who'd listen that he was close despite finishing 38th, and went on to win his next two starts.
The most consistent major contender in world golf, who has had two chances in three this year unlike favourite Dustin Johnson, or Thomas, or Jon Rahm, or Jason Day, or Rickie Fowler, or Justin Rose, or Brooks Koepka, Spieth is a big enough price to take on board the obvious concerns that he just isn't playing well enough.
All things considered, all I wanted was to see him putt well last week and for his price to remain north of 20/1 and as both boxes have been ticked, he's taken to land the career grand slam.
Johnson's major consistency is almost as impressive but I prefer the claims of Rory McIlroy and he's put forward as the man to beat.
Like Spieth, it's easy to underestimate what McIlroy has done in majors. He has four of them, twice thanks to this championship, and while they came when he was clearly more dominant, before Thomas and Spieth emerged as threats and at a time when DJ was still getting in his own way a little, he remains hard to keep out of the frame.
This year he's contended for the Masters and the Open, in fact he's done that every year for some time in both events, and while his recent US PGA record is less impressive I find his Baltusrol missed cut easy to forgive while there was extra pressure attached to last year's tie for 22nd at Quail Hollow, the course at which he made his PGA Tour breakthrough at the turn of the decade.
His winning form at Crooked Stick, East Lake, Firestone and Congressional has Jones written all over it and his first major top-five also came at Hazeltine, so there's hope that Bellerive will suit the player who I still consider to be the world's best ball-striker when at the peak of his powers.
That wasn't the case last week as his iron play proved costly, but McIlroy has generally made strides with his wedges this year and despite the usual concerns around his putting, at 78th on the PGA Tour there doesn't appear to be anything to worry about; indeed, this is how he putted during that two-major 2014 season which included a PGA Championship at Valhalla, Kentucky, a state which neighbours Missouri.
If there is a concern, it's to be found in McIlroy's Sunday displays of late. He was disappointing after a bright start to the final round of the Masters, just as he'd been when beaten by Hao-tong Li in Dubai, just as he was at Wentworth and just as he was at Firestone, each time a far cry from the man who once proved so hard to catch when hitting the front.
For a couple of years now, his conversion rate from the final group has been poor with his best performances - the 2016 TOUR Championship and this year's Arnold Palmer Invitational - having come from off the pace. For a player who front-ran his way to the 2011 US Open and three more majors after that, it's a worrying downward trend.
But I retain faith in Rory McIlroy and his brilliance which I believe is unfairly judged by many in a reflection of the standards he's set. I also believe in his ability to turn a negative into a positive, and recall how he kicked on to win the 2014 Open after a good start, having spent the previous few months spluttering his way backwards to the extent that his pre-Open presser included questions about his Friday performances and whether there was a deep-rooted problem.
While he had clearly given his full focus to Firestone come Sunday afternoon, McIlroy spent the earlier part of last week talking about how nice a way to prepare for the PGA it was and he's fancied to iron out those small problems with his approach play and once again be in there pitching come Sunday afternoon.
Thomas is of course respected, but defending a major brings its own challenges and not everyone deals with them in the manner that Brooks Koepka did. Speaking of which, the US Open champion is another who habitually turns up in the events which matter most and his sneaky top-10 at Firestone quite rightly brought him onto the radar.
Day's approach play improved leaps and bounds last week, at least until the 16th hole on Sunday, and I could easily make a case for him, or Rahm, even Fowler and certainly Tommy Fleetwood. There are no secrets here, all the evidence bar exactly how the course will play is right there in front of us.
But with my faith placed in the two best major performers on the planet, I'll cast the net just a little wider to Webb Simpson.
Much has been made of how well Tony Finau has played in the majors this year, but Simpson isn't far behind having been 20th at Augusta, 10th at Shinnecock and 12th in the Open Championship at Carnoustie.
The first two of those courses really don't suit his fairway-finding game but the fact is that Simpson at his best is far greater than the sum of his parts, which is why he's among a select group of players to have won both a major and the PLAYERS Championship.
Victory at Sawgrass earlier this year looks a particularly solid pointer and there has been no let-up in Simpson since, as he looks to complete a fabulous return to the top grade by qualifying to the United States Ryder Cup side - he's currently eighth of eight who will do so automatically at the end of this week.
With so many straight-hitting types in contention here in 2008 I'm not put off by the yardage on the scorecard and prefer to focus on the fact that Simpson is inside the top 20 on the PGA Tour in both strokes-gained approach and three-putt avoidance, potentially two of the vital statistics this week.
The only other player in this field who fits the bill in that regard is Dustin Johnson and Simpson, who also ticks the Firestone box having been 24th there last week, looks a strong each-way contender despite not being among the flashier types on the circuit.
It'll surprise many to see Hideki Matsuyama at the same sort of price and he's tempting by default, but the Japanese ranked 69th of 71 players in driving accuracy last week and it's very difficult to argue that his game is in the sort of shape required to defy huge expectations at home and win his first major.
Habitual major contender and top-25 machine Louis Oosthuizen is considered as usual and, as touched upon, there are all manner of world-class players for whom positives can be found.
But as I strongly fancy McIlroy, expect Simpson to continue his good run of form and believe that Spieth is overpriced, I'll happily rely on the above trio and finish off with a trio of more speculative selections. Major markets tend to dismiss far too many players and history tells us that there are surprise winners, many of which had in fact offered some kind of hint earlier in the season.
Si Woo Kim is back inside the world's top 50 after 10th place at Firestone, which in turn came on the heels of a solid T29 in Canada, and it was on the back of a similar fortnight that he secured his first PGA Tour win almost exactly two years ago.
Last spring's PLAYERS Championship shock also followed a back-to-form 22nd while his runner-up effort in the RBC Heritage earlier this year, an event he ought to have won, followed on from 24th place at Augusta.
A habitually hit-and-miss type, Kim's standout performances have all been hinted at over the preceding fortnight or so and this 23-year-old showed at Sawgrass last year that he has the tools to become a major champion providing he can remain healthy.
There appear to be no concerns on that front right now and with the putter working wonders at Firestone, Kim can contend as he did at last year's US Open.
Two key pointers have been a win and some kind of recent form, and 300/1 shot Michael Kim has both having won the John Deere Classic just two starts ago before a very respectable 35th at Carnoustie, where he finished with bogeys at each of the final three holes, without which he might've bagged a top-20.
Kim had no time to prepare for his Open debut having earned the final spot in the field and flown in from Illinois, so his performance was seriously impressive just days after a life-changing PGA Tour breakthrough.
Of course, it's possible to argue that he was riding the crest of a wave and there's nothing else in his 2018 form book which gives him much of a chance here, but an alternative view is of a 25-year-old who was so good as an amateur that it wasn't altogether surprising when he finished 17th in the 2013 US Open.
His first couple of seasons on the PGA Tour promised plenty and now that he's won courtesy of an incredible front-running display at the John Deere, there's no reason Kim can't kick on and establish himself at world level - particularly as he's a sharp iron player and also has a handy knack of putting the lights out.
Chances are this is too soon in his development but with eight very solid major rounds out of eight coupled with that eight-stroke victory last month, Kim shouldn't be totally overlooked and neither should Eddie Pepperell.
The insightful Englishman was second in Scotland and then sixth at Carnoustie, and while it's correct to view those results through the prism of links golf and his comfort levels in Europe, they don't appear to have been given enough credit in his price.
Pepperell also won earlier this season and I quite like the idea that Georgia Hall's Women's British Open triumph could egg him on a little, especially as they played together at GolfSixes earlier in the year.
Avid golf fans won't need me to point them towards Pepperell's blog, the latest entry in which is probably his best yet, but it's safe to say he arrives in the US with a strong sense of perspective, having played some of the best golf of his life lately and on the heels of a compatriot winning a major.
Throw in a very sound 16th place in last year's US Open, and there's hope that he could do some damage.