The final men’s major of the year takes place this week, with the US PGA Championship bringing the curtain down on another all-too-short season of the tournaments that define the sport.
Despite having the strongest field, it’s not stretching the truth to call the US PGA the poor relation of the game’s four marquee events. The Masters provides the most charm; the US Open provides the sternest challenge; the Open provides the deepest history.
The US PGA? Well, it provides a bookend.
Not that Rory McIlroy will care when he hoists aloft the substantially proportioned Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday evening.
This week, the Northern Irishman will win his fifth major. I’m almost certain of it.
I’m also well aware that’s a bold declaration. More than any other sport, the winners of golf tournaments are notoriously hard to predict. Still, I am confident this is going to be Rory’s week. Very confident.
The venue is a big of that. Quail Hollow, in North Carolina, will stage the event for the first time. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because it has long been visited by the PGA Tour. From 1969 to 1979, it staged the Kemper Open and, since 2003, has played host to the Wachovia Championship, now the Wells Fargo Championship.
McIlroy won that event in 2010. It was his first PGA Tour victory and he held off Phil Mickelson to prevail by four shots.
He lost in a play-off to Rickie Fowler for the same title two years later before winning it for a second time – by a record seven shots – in 2015. His third round 61 that year is the current course record.
Since 2010, he ranks first on the PGA Tour at Quail Hollow for scoring average, score to par, birdies and eagles, and top tens. No wonder Jordan Spieth says he’s “probably the guy to beat” this week.
Jordan Spieth. There's another reason for my confidence in Rory this week. Following his Open win last month, the young American stands on the brink of golf history, knowing that a US PGA victory would see him become just the sixth player to complete the career grand slam.
He is the name on everybody’s lips, the main attraction, the man upon whom most eyes will be trained. Consequently, Rory will be flying under the radar (at least, as much as it is possible for somebody like him to do so) this week. This isn’t Masters week, when his own career grand slam quest is one of the primary narratives. This week is all about Spieth.
Then there’s McIlroy’s recent return to form. By his own high standards, and for a variety of reasons, this has been a pretty abject year for the Northern Irishman on the course. When he told reporters at the Scottish Open that he was “close” to finding his best form, nobody believed him, particularly when he missed the cut – his third weekend off in four events.
Then he went to Royal Birkdale and, after a dismal start, recovered well to finish in a tie for fourth. Last night, in his first event since splitting with caddie J.P. Fitzgerald, he finished in a tie for fifth at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. That tournament represented the first time since January that he broke 70 in every round in a tournament. Back to his best? Maybe not quite. But by his own admission, it's better to find his best this week than last.
Looking for another reason? Look to the skies above. Forecasters are predicting showers and thunderstorms for throughout the tournament. McIlroy will relish that.
All four of his previous major triumphs have come at weather-affected tournaments. He hits it long enough not to be hampered by reduced run and roll, and high enough to take full advantage of the soft greens. And don’t give me any of this ‘streaky putter’ stuff. He’s averaging 28.47 putts per round on the PGA Tour this season. That’s better than Justin Thomas, Jason Day, Brandt Snedeker, Zach Johnson and, yes, even Jordan Spieth.
With the greatest of respect to the rest of the field, Rory’s got one hand on the Wanamaker before the tournament has even begun.
Barring some kind of football injury, bizarre gardening accident or Zombie apocalypse, expect that to be two come Sunday night.