So, after a fantastic year for golf thus far, all eyes turn to the final major of the year, the US PGA Championship, at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin. Known as ‘Glory’s Last Shot’, the US PGA actually began as a match-play tournament in 1916, but financial sensibilities saw the tournament changed to the seventy-two hole format we see today, in 1958. Match-play by its very nature threw up too many surprises so network television pressure was one of the driving forces behind the format changes, the thinking being that stroke play competition would more likely see the cream rise to the top, thus bolstering viewing figures. The victor takes the Wannamaker Trophy, named after the wealthy New York businessman Rodman Wannamaker who as well as being instrumental in setting up the first tournament, donated the trophy to the first winner, Jim Barnes.
If we include the bizarre, otherworldly and frankly fantastic U.S. open at Chambers Bay, the PGA will be the third major to be played on a links course this year, which must surely be a record. This week’s venue played host to Dustin Johnson’s now infamous 2010 gaffe –actually entirely golf related- when he grounded his club in what he thought was rough but was in fact deemed a bunker. A two-shot penalty saw the unfortunate Johnson drop from a tie for first, and a playoff, to fifth. To be fair to Johnson, Whistling Straits is heavy on bunkers, boasting almost one-thousand of the amateur golfer’s nemesis, although admittedly, a large number of the bunkers are not even in play. That year, Martin Kaymer would go on to beat Bubba Watson –surely the most annoying man in world sport- in a dramatic three-hole playoff. Of 2010’s three main protagonists, Johnson and Watson look in far better form than Kaymer, although it is always dangerous to write off a player returning to a course where he has savoured victory before.
After the most disastrous kick-about in history caused him to miss the Open Championship, world number one Rory McIlroy returns to defend his crown –won thrillingly last year from Phil Mickelson at Valhalla- and the scene is set for a tremendous showdown with flavour of the week, Jordan Spieth. World number-two Spieth’s year thus far has been fantastic, not dissimilar to McIlroy’s 2014, and he knows victory in Wisconsin will take him to the pinnacle of professional golf, and at just twenty-two, one Open Championship away from a career Grand Slam. There have to be serious doubts surrounding McIlroy though, given that he’s played no competitive golf in over two months, and any reasonable observer would be hard pressed to predict a McIlroy victory on Sunday evening.
Before we go to our picks for the week let’s have a look at the favourites. As we’ve said already McIlroy (8/1) is prohibitive, very much a partisan bet and one we’ll be avoiding. Jordan Spieth (6/1), who has owned golf this year, comes in as an unsurprisingly low-priced favourite and there is nothing in his game that makes us think he can’t win. If you’re inclined to back favourites then we can’t look past Spieth, whose major record in 2014 reads 1st, 1st, tied 4th. Dustin Johnson (14/1), he of the lengthening list of major meltdowns may be tempting for many but with so many players in form, combined with D.J.’s propensity to implode we’d advise the discerning punter to stay well away. Johnson is renowned –and this is probably putting it nicely- for his ability to forget past mistakes so perhaps he doesn’t even remember the 2010 PGA but, on the flipside, he may not have learned from it either. Bubba Watson (14/1) has been in fantastic form of late with a pair of second-place finishes and, as mentioned, has previous on this course. A sensible, if short-priced pick.
Of the favourites, the man we like is Australian Jason Day (14/1). Ninth place in Chamber Bay and a slightly unlucky tied fourth in St. Andrews, Day has is possibly playing the best golf of his life. A victory in The Canadian Open the week after the Open shows day is still very much in the zone and after knocking on the door enough times to bloody his knuckles, this could well be the week he breaks his major duck.
Where, though, is the fun in picking a winner from the favourites? As ever, we’re taking the road less travelled, in the hope that this week we will actually give you a big priced major championship winner. Wisely it seems, very few of you have listened to us thus far but we have a feeling we’re on to something this week. And so, on to our picks for the 2015 PGA Championship.
- Shane Lowry (50/1)
What a week for the big man from Clara. Anyone who saw the scenes from Esker Hills Golf Club last Sunday night will know just what it meant to see one of their own –and a bona fide star- win one of world golf’s biggest prizes, the Bridgestone Invitational Championship, in Ohio. Anyone who has even a fleeting interest in Irish golf would have been delighted for the Offaly man. The courageous way in which he won the Bridgestone, highlighted by breath-taking recovery shots on the 10th and 18th -reminiscent of Seve in his pomp- only serve to confirm the fearless audacity in Lowry’s game at present. Anyone who has paid attention to his career will know that composure, rather than confidence have been Lowry’s occasional downfall. Last week, with three major winners in his slipstream, the new world number nineteen took his game to another level and there is no reason to think he can’t bring this momentum to Wisconsin. Lowry thrives on links courses, has a scrambling game as good as any and as of last week knows he can beat a major quality field. For those who don’t subscribe to the theory of a major winner coming from the previous weekend’s winner, Phil Mickelson in 2013 (Scottish Open, Open Championship) and McIlroy in 2014 (Bridgestone Invitational, PGA Championship) emphatically buck this theory. Admittedly we got Lowry at 66/1 last weekend but we would still be getting involved at this price. One for the sound guy.
- Brooks Koepka (40/1)
Now, anyone who’s been following our column may feel –indeed a friend recently told us as much- that we’re combining borderline obsession with the flogging of a dead horse when it comes to Brooks Koepka in this year’s majors. We, however, have seen remarkable consistency married to measurable progress – 33rd in the Masters, 18th in the U.S. Open, 10th in the Open- for the man who we feel can go on to win multiple majors. Koepka has placed in the top 25 in his last six events bookended by a 3rd at the St. Jude Classic and 6th at the Bridgestone Invitational last week, where he was under par in every round. True, he’s a pretty poor at scrambling but this is negated by the fact that he picks up so many birdies. Further, he finished in the top 10 in St. Andrews, so it appears he is suited to links courses. And, just before you shout ‘bullshit’ be mindful of the fact that three of Koepka’s four victories on the European Challenge Tour came on links courses so this isn’t a case of us plucking from the fantasy department. Koepka has trended in the right direction throughout major season and, given his form and ability we think he’s hard to ignore at this price.
- Louis Oosthuizen (33/1)
Despite much head scratching, we still can’t fathom why this season’s best major performer, not named Jordan Spieth, is available at such a decent price. Tied 2nd at the U.S. Open and 2nd at the Open, Oosthuizen was agonizingly denied at St. Andrews in a playoff defeat to Zach Johnson. Perhaps his relatively poor showing last week, leading to a forty-second placed finish –the last ten PGA champions have finished no lower than twenty-second in the Bridgestone since 2006- is the reason the affable South African is being avoided. Fear not, however, as Oosthuizen’s last two excellent major performances have been preceded by tied 73rd at the Greenbriar Classic and a slightly less than imperious withdrawal at the Crowne Plaza Invitational. The 2010 Open Championship winner simply knows how to step up on the big occasion and, flying in the face of all reason given his past performances this season, comes to Whistling Straits with little or no fanfare at a very enticing price.
- Branden Grace (70/1)
You’ve gotten this far so you know it’s time for the slightly left field pick. New Zealand’s Danny Lee (100/1) is in tremendous form but has to be avoided as he missed the cut in both U.S. Open and Open Championship. There seems to be a lot of love from Americans for Robert Streb (90/1) and while his form is also tremendous he is yet to win on tour this year and for us that’s just too much of a reach.
Instead, our final pick goes to South African Branden Grace. Already a two-time winner on the European Tour in 2015, Grace followed a tremendous fast-charging tied 4th finish at the U.S. Open with a tied 20th at the Open Championship. Last week’s tied 17th in the W.G.C. is clear evidence that Grace’s game is in excellent nick and he seems primed for a charge at a maiden major victory. With so many sub-plots surrounding the favourites, Grace is another form golfer who will arrive at Whsitling Straits free from any external pressure.
This week’s PGA Championship will hopefully mark the high point in what has been a tremendous year thus far for golf. A virtuoso performance from Spieth at Augusta, an age-defying, gritty performance from the same man coupled with a Johnson meltdown at Chambers Bay and a classic shootout at St. Andrew’s. We have seen the emergence of some quality golfers and, of course, the sublime rise of Jordan Spieth as Rory McIlroy’s likely sparring partner for years to come. McIlroy has the best game on tour but Spieth has the best putting and incredible composure for a twenty-two-year-old. You feel the world number-one will have to dig phenomenally deep to hold off not only Spieth but the rest of this tremendous field with a number of the big guns coming to the boil at just the right time. There is an undeniable wave of optimism surrounding Irish golf this week and imagine the excitement which would greet a maiden major win for Shane Lowry or an incredible comeback victory for Rory McIlroy. Statistics and circumstances suggest otherwise but anything is possible in this curious, oddly magnificent old game.
U.S. PGA Championship 2015 Picks
- Shane Lowry e/w @ 50/1
- Brooks Koepka e/w @ 40/1
- Louis Oosthuizen e/w @ 33/1
- Branden Grace e/w @ 70/1
- Danny Willet Top 10 @ 8/1