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The number of stories swirling around Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth are enough to make you believe that this week’s USPGA Championship is only about two players. The Northern Irishman has jettisoned his long-time caddie, JP Fitzgerald, in an attempt to find the right chemistry heading into the final major of the season, while the American is looking to complete a career Grand Slam quicker than anyone who has ever played the game – he’d beat Tiger Woods’ record by six months should he lift the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday.
The case for both is obvious: Spieth heads to the event as the recently crowned Open champion; his gutsy display over the last five holes at Royal Birkdale, when it looked as if a string of last day mistakes would consume him, was nothing sort of sensational. McIlroy, meanwhile, has put back-to-back top five finishes together for the first time this year and has the best record of any player in the field at Quail Hollow, venue for this year’s renewal (it stages the Wells Fargo Championship which he has won twice, finished runner-up once, can boast three other top ten finishes and owns the course record of 61).
Big challenges await following course alterations
However, the Charlotte course has changed out of all recognition since the last tour event held there in May 2016. An extensive overhaul that features three new holes on the front nine (four in total) and the complete reseeding of all the greens with Bermuda grass could render past form redundant when it comes to trying to pick the winner.
That’s not to say Mcilroy, who gave his new caddie, Harry Diamond, a grade of ‘A’ when asked about his bagman’s performance at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last week, cannot win; of course he can. The former world number one will have extremely positive mental associations with the North Carolina venue, but he is almost always over-bet and under-priced, and that is certain to be the case when punters align his Quail Hollow form with this week’s tournament. Still, he is driving ball very well and only has to hole some putts to get himself into contention – even Spieth has stated that ‘Rory is the man to beat’.
The most recent winner of the Claret Jug would say that, though, wouldn’t he? Spieth knows the spotlight will shine very brightly on him as he goes for that career Grand Slam, even though he’s suggested that attempting to join Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen – the only players to achieve the feat – will not be a burden.
Of greater concern to the rest of the field is the difficulty of the course and the potential that the greens could get very fast if the weather stays dry and hot. Jimmy Walker, the defending champion, has said the course ‘has the potential to play really firm and really fast’, before adding ‘that’s when golf gets really hard – when you start losing control of the golf ball.’ Phil Mickelson mused that the changes could lead to an ‘over par’ score ending up being enough to win the tournament.
Don’t be hasty to cast away outsiders
The tougher the course and conditions usually means that the cream will rise to the top – although the odd outlier can never be discounted in the USPGA Championship. YE Yang, Rich Beem and Shaun Micheel have all won this event in the past 15 years when priced at triple-figure odds. Still, three of the last five winners have been 20/1 or shorter, while seven of the last ten champions were ranked in the world’s top 25.
Spieth’s win in Southport halted the run of first time major winners at seven. The USPGA, though, has thrown up plenty of maiden major champions – six of the last eight, in fact, including the last two. So where does the value lie? Well, Hideki Matsuyama’s incredible Sunday 61 at Firestone, that saw him snatch victory in the latest WGC event, has forced the bookmakers to slash the odds of the Japanese claiming a first major win. And while he’s capable of consecutive victories – remember his form figures in a purple patch last autumn read 1-2-1-1 – it is always difficult for any golfer to follow up a record-equalling 18 holes with another very low total.
Charley Hoffman’s play has suggested elevation to the big time for the Californian could be possible, but his lack of a killer instinct at the business end of tournaments is a worry and he might only reward the place part of any each-way bet.
DJ to make biggest splash for punters
As I’ve profiled, though, recent history indicates that the USPGA Championship is more likely to be won by a leading golfer – so I’m looking no further than world number one Dustin Johnson.
DJ hasn’t been a regular at Quail Hollow for several years but he is such a better player now that previous form at this week’s track – whether it turns out to be meaningless or not – can largely be ignored. One thing is for sure, the layout demands good driving. It has been revamped as a par 71, 7,600-yard layout and features the longest opening par four in major championship golf (at 524 yards short hitters will struggle from the get go). Johnson, one of the biggest boomers on tour, should relish the test and, as he recorded his best putting statistics since March in Akron last time out, all parts of his game seem to be clicking.
The final three holes are known as the ‘Green Mile’ – an extremely tough closing stretch that features a brutal par three and the immensely challenging 494-yard par 4 18th that could see some big numbers end up of golfers’ scorecards. One player I always feel is well equipped to deal with such an examination is Paul Casey. The Englishman, who turned 40 during the Open Championship and is expecting his second child in the autumn, has put himself in the mix in all three Majors this term, comes into this week off the back of form figures of 5-11-5 and is strong and accurate off the tee.
Lastly, have a flutter on Tony Finau. Another bomber with the longest club in the bag, some smart performances in the Canadian Open and the Greenbrier Classic in the past month have seen the Utah-born professional’s stock rise. He might not win but looks a useful addition to staking plans in each-way, top ten and top 20 markets.