"I wish I could do it again." — Last year, Mito Pereira's words, and his tee shot on the 72nd hole, resonated with club golfers everywhere.
39 days after Spain’s Jon Rahm put on a famous Green Jacket at The Masters, Golf’s second major of the year will get underway, as the US PGA Championship begins at Oak Hill Country Club.
Moving from a minor to a major
Not only is the USPGA, or US PGA Championship, one of those nomadic majors, with a different host course each year, in 2019 it also moved its timeslot from August to May. In its former position at the end of the summer, organisers used the marketing slogan: “Glory’s last shot.” Following on from April’s Masters, the USPGA is now a second chance for glory.
Although the US PGA Championship is hosted by a myriad of different tracks, there’s no doubt that most of the courses chosen for recent renewals have favoured long hitters. This year, you can forget the SoCal sunshine or the heat of Florida, Oak Hill, is in the northeastern United States, in western New York, and is close to the Canadian border, not far from the Great Lakes, so inclement weather could be a factor.
Traditionally the season’s “minor major” — given its slightly lower standing than The Masters, US Open, and Open Championship — had gone the way of first-time major winners. Between 2001 and 2017, 10 players won their first major in this event, including surprise major champions, like Rich Beem, Shaun Micheel — who failed to win another PGA Tour event during his career, — Y.E. Yang, and Jimmy Walker. To a lesser extent, you could add David Toms, Keegan Bradley, and Oak Hill conqueror, Jason Dufner to the list of recent unexpected champions. However, four of the past five players to lift the Wanamaker Trophy were no strangers to major glory, with a brace of wins for Brooks Koepka, and Phil Mickelson and Justin Thomas adding to their major collections, while Collin Morikawa has proved he’s no one-hit wonder, by adding an Open Championship win to his 2020 USPGA triumph.
You win some, you lose some
This week, players will be battling to get their name added to the Wanamaker Trophy, which stands nearly two and a half feet high, and weighs 12kg. Strangely for a trophy which is far from inconspicuous, it was lost for a few years in the late 1920s. The story goes that, in 1925, upon winning the trophy at Olympia Fields, in Illinois, champion Walter Hagen asked a local Chicago taxi driver to transport it to his hotel. The Wanamaker Trophy never arrived. To be fair, a lot of things went missing in Chicago during that era.
An 11-time major winner, and the pre-eminent golfer of the roaring twenties, when asked why he hadn’t brought it with him the following year, Hagen said he had been confident of retaining the title and had no intention of giving up the trophy. He didn’t tell the PGA of its loss, which wasn’t a problem while he kept winning the trophy and wasn’t required to hand it back. After failing to win in 1928, he had to come clean. Eventually, in 1930, the trophy resurfaced in a local factory. Small wonder then that organisers insist that the winner returns the trophy each year and, given the domination of US players over the past decade, the Wanamaker Trophy hasn’t left US shores since Australia’s Jason Day triumphed in 2015.
The English patience
For the longest time the USPGA was a graveyard for golfers from these isles, with no British or Irish player winning between Tommy Armour’s success in 1930 — when it was still a Match Play event — and Ireland’s Padraig Harrington’s 2008 win. Although there has been recent success for those from the island of Ireland, it has been a different story for the English. Whereas Nick Faldo won three Masters’ titles, and Danny Willett landed a Green Jacket; Tony Jacklin — and much more recently — Justin Rose and Matt Fitzpatrick both won the US Open, and English players have won The Open Championship 12 times since 1930, including Faldo three times, and Jacklin once, the USPGA has proved impossible to crack. Fans of English Golf have seen numerous near misses — including Faldo, Paul Casey, and unheralded David Lynn filling the runners-up spot — but their patient wait for an English winner of the US PGA Championship goes on.
Suggestions not welcome
Among the US PGA Championship’s iconic moments was the tournament’s surprise winner in 1991. Back then, few outside of followers of US Collegiate Golf knew anything about John Daly. He was the ninth alternate for the event and wasn’t expecting to play. A last-minute opening meant the man who would come to be known as Wild Thing would have to drive through the night from Memphis to Indiana to make his tee time. That wasn’t the only time that week that “Long John” Daly would top the driving stats, en route to a shock victory. It seemed strangely appropriate that his unlikely triumph happened at Crooked Stick Country Club, a course that was nearly as unconventional as that year’s champion. Exhibiting the same devil-may-care attitude as the Wild Thing, the course’s suggestion box is inaccessibly placed in the middle of a water hazard.
Four years later, Colin Montgomerie had seemed destined to become a major champion, but the Scotsman fell agonisingly short, losing a playoff to Australia’s Steve Elkington. The Elk was a Golfer who, ironically, was genuinely allergic to grass, and spent his career using various medications to mitigate the symptoms. During those extra holes, the Elk drained a twenty-five-foot putt, while Monty missed from closer to the hole, and that would be as near as he would get to a major triumph.
Love conquers all
Another player who had looked likely to end his career without the major title that his talent deserved, was Davis Love III. In 1988, Love had lost his father in a plane crash. Nine years later, the Winged Foot course that had held a special place in his father’s heart and was the site of Love Senior’s win in the 1960 US Open Qualifier, hosted the USPGA. As Love III held off Justin Leonard to earn what would be the only major of his career, there was a particularly poignant moment when a rainbow provided the backdrop to the 18th green, as Love held the winning putt.
The El Niño effect
From grizzled veterans to the youthful enthusiasm of Sergio Garcia. Garcia didn’t win the 1999 renewal, but the event is best remembered for the play of the man once known as El Niño. Playing the 16th during Round Four, Garcia’s errant drive nestled in the roots of a tree. Surely, he’d have to lay-up. Not a bit of it. The young Spaniard conjured a miraculous escape to reach the green and was unable to contain his sheer exuberance, running down the fairway to see what had become of his approach shot.
Garcia’s conqueror that day? Tiger Woods. Woods would hold what he considers to be the biggest pressure putt of his career en route to victory in this event a year later. It kept Woods in contention for a playoff, one that pitted him against journeyman Bob May. Woods’ eventual triumph kept the Tiger Slam alive, and he completed the feat of holding all four major titles at the same time, with his win at The Masters, eight months later.
In 2021, Phil Mickelson’s emotional USPGA win saw him become the biggest-priced winner of a men’s major since 2011. Lefty had been freely available to back at 200/1 and became the oldest man to win a major in the modern era.
A shocking end for Pereira
Twelve months ago, Justin Thomas equalled the biggest comeback in US PGA Championship history. He started Sunday seven shots adrift but, aided by holing a monster 64-foot putt on the eleventh, and benefitting from third-round leader, Mito Pereira faltering down the stretch, he secured a second US PGA Championship victory. As short as 6/4 to win the title as he began the final round with a three-shot cushion — and having been four strokes ahead at one point in Round Three — Pereira endured a tough Sunday, culminating in finding the water with his tee shot on 18, en route to a double-bogey. Of his miscue on the 72nd hole of the tournament, one spectator commented: “it looked like he got electrocuted at impact.” With the Chilean out of the running, Thomas became the first player to open a PGA Championship playoff with consecutive birdies and never looked like being denied from that point, as he held off fellow American Will Zalatoris. Whoever is going to write the next chapter in USPGA history is going to have to conquer a formidable test.
Oak Hill Country Club has one of those vaguely familiar sounding names that is hard to place. Not Oakland Hills, not Oakmont. Is it west or east? Home to two courses, the West Course only measures 6,735 yards, Sadly, for the 156 players competing, it will be the 7,394-yard East Course, also designed by Donald J. Ross, that will be the venue for the 105th US PGA Championship.
Oak Hill has hosted six majors — three US Opens and three USPGAs — and was also the venue for Europe’s 1995 Ryder Cup triumph, when Irishman Philip Walton held the putt that returned the trophy to Europe, after consecutive defeats. The last major to be held here was the 2013 US PGA Championship, won by insouciant American Jason Dufner. Rory McIlroy finished seven shots back, in tied-eighth — alongside Dustin and Zach Johnson, and Jason Day — while Day’s fellow Australian Adam Scott also posted a top-10 finish. Hideki Matsuyama is a far more accomplished player than when he finished a highly respectable tied-19th, alongside Rickie Fowler who — since re-joining coach Butch Harmon — has shown signs of a return to form. Poor efforts in Round Three from Tiger Woods and Shane Lowry put them out of contention, as did a final-round 77 from Brooks Koepka.
Back to the future
That said, the test that will greet the world’s elite golfers this week, will be quite different from the one posed ten years ago. Despite Oak Hill being the only course to have held every US-based major — including the Seniors and Amateur events — the club felt changes were needed. The planning process for renovating the East Course began in 2014. All the greens and bunkers have been remade, and the majority of the tees have been rebuilt. “We knew that we needed to do something monumental to the East Course”, Jeff Corcoran Oak Hill’s Manager Of Golf Course And Grounds, explained. The man behind many of the changes, course architect, Andrew Green commented: “In my mind, it was taking this Golf Course that had an amazing history, a storied history, an iconic history, and trying to return it to its roots. The changes have won the approval of Club President David Fries, who stated: “We now have a truly great, great Golf course, a Golf course that gives you risk and reward.”
Despite the recent alterations, Oak Hill is a classical parkland course, very much traditional in its style. Water isn’t really a factor at this track, but thick rough penalises errant drives. That said, more than 500 trees have been removed, which places more of a premium on power, and less on accuracy. The bentgrass greens are unlikely to be quite as lightning fast as many seen in the USPGA down the years.
Given the considerable overhaul that the course has been through, it’s tough to project an identikit winner on the track, as it will play very differently from the last time it was used for a competitive event. Perhaps you could tentatively suggest that TPC Potomac might have certain similarities. Another Donald Ross creation, and another in the north-east of the United States, although Potomac reverted from being a Par 71, like Oak Hill, to a Par 70, both contain 12 Par 4s, and Bentgrass greens. TPC Potomac was a substitute for regular venue Quail Hollow for the 2022 Wells Fargo Championship, which saw Max Homa lift the trophy, with England’s Matt Fitzpatrick, and Americans Cameron Young and Keegan Bradley finishing two shots adrift, and Rory McIlroy placing fifth.
The most exclusive Golf club in the world
One of the key talking points in the lead-up to the USPGA Championship will be Jordan Spieth’s bid to join the most exclusive club in Golf — those to have completed a career Grand Slam — by winning The Masters, the US PGA Championship, the US Open, and The Open Championship. This club has only five members: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, and Tiger Woods. The Texan won The Masters and the US Open back-to-back in 2015, and two years later added a Claret Jug to his trophy cabinet, at Royal Birkdale. Seeking to complete the incredible feat of a career Grand Slam brings with it its own pressure — just ask Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson. Nevertheless, in six US PGA Championship appearances since his Open Championship win, Spieth has made the cut each time, with his tied-third effort on Bethpage State Park’s Black Course, in 2019, the closest he has come to completing Golf’s ultimate accomplishment.
Though never really looking to be in contention, a run of birdies over the closing holes propelled the Texas native into a tie for fourth place at this year’s Masters. Spieth seems to need to be in good form to win a major — his three previous major victories were all immediately preceded by a top-three finish. Prior to the Wells Fargo, Spieth would certainly have been ticking the box marked strong current form, with top-five finishes in three consecutive Stroke Play events. However, a Second-Round 77 led to a missed cut at Quail Hollow last time out. It would be unwise to read too much into Spieth’s missed cut at Oak Hill in 2013, given that he had only been a pro for a little over a year. Of greater concern is the fact that Spieth recently pulled out of the AT&T Byron Nelson, citing an injured wrist.
Rahmbo part III?
As much as 2022 was a tough year for Jon Rahm, 2023 has seen the Spaniard record four wins, including a first Green Jacket, and regain the title of world number one. It always seems to be the case that when a golfer wins a major the various talking heads are falling over themselves to predict that the player concerned will rattle up a sequence of several major titles. However, the world of men’s Golf is so competitive that most of these predictions aren’t realised. After back-to-back major wins, Jordan Spieth, we were told, would win countless others. At present, the count is only one more added to that total. Rory McIlroy looked to have the world at his feet after securing a fourth major win, at the 2014 US PGA Championship at Valhalla. McIlroy’s win that week led Jack Nicklaus to say: “I think Rory has an opportunity to win 15 or 20 majors or whatever he wants to do……” The Ulsterman’s major drought now stands at nine years.
Nevertheless, with Rahm’s prodigious talent, it will be a major surprise if he fails to secure more wins in Golf’s signature events. While 2022 was a let-down, in which he failed to produce a top-10 finish in any of the majors, Rahm’s 2021 major performance reflects his considerable talent, with tied-fifth, tied-eighth, first, and tied-third finishes.
Rahm elected to tee it up the week after The Masters, when many a player might have chosen to enjoy a few well-earned Riojas instead. His tied-15th effort in the RBC Heritage reflected the energy he’d expended in the season’s first major. Sent off a prohibitively short priced 16/5 favourite against a modest field in the Mexico Open, a fortnight later, he found himself six shots off the lead at halfway, before recording a course record 61 in Round Three, and going on to finish second behind Tony Finau. His mix of current form and major pedigree has led to Rahm being installed as the 15/2 second-favourite for the USPGA, narrowly behind American Scottie Scheffler, at 7/1.
Given the recent record of defending Masters’ champions, Scheffler’s tied-tenth place finish was a highly creditable effort at Augusta. But then we shouldn’t be surprised, given his 2023 form figures reveal a model of consistency: T7/T11/1/T12/T4/1/4/T10/T11/T5. These performances have been underpinned by the fact that Scheffler leads the PGA Tour in Strokes Gained: Off-the-tee, and Greens in Regulation. Both these positive facets were very much in evidence during the 2022 Masters’ champion’s tied-fifth effort in the AT&T Byron Nelson. In view of this, we can expect a very different effort from his missed cut in the USPGA last year.
The punters who backed Rory McIlroy into favouritism at The Masters didn’t get much of a run for their money, with the Ulsterman’s disastrous second-round 77 derailing any hopes of a career Grand Slam. His withdrawal from the RBC Heritage cost him $3M under the PGA Tour’s Player Impact Program, before he returned at Quail Hollow. His performance in that Wells Fargo Championship was pretty lacklustre — finishing in a tie for 47th on one of his favourite courses. Even then, he needed to hole a five-foot putt to avoid suffering back-to-back missed cuts for the first time since 2012. These travails have led him to change his putter in an attempt to rekindle the magic. As outlined above, he does have course form in the bag with that top-10 effort the last time that the USPGA circus came to Oak Hill, and since then, the four-time major champion has become a member at Oak Hill.
Justin Thomas’ missed cut at The Masters was somewhat of a surprise, given both his event form and the way he had been playing coming into the tournament. It was the first time he had failed to make the weekend at Augusta in eight attempts, and his first missed cut since the Scottish Open, last July. All eight of his rounds since The Masters have been 72 or lower, but he failed to crack the top-10 in either the RBC Heritage or Wells Fargo Championship.
Thomas turned thirty last month, and to put his accomplishments into perspective, his US PGA Championship win twelve months ago made him just the sixth player since the war to achieve 15 wins on the PGA Tour — including two major titles — before his 30th birthday.
LIV, for the moment
For much of The Masters, Brooks Koepka looked like he might give us an answer to the question: what would the reaction be if an LIV golfer won a major? He and Rahm looked to have the title between them, but Koepka’s start to his final round saw him play as poorly as he had for many months. In fact, his poor finish marked only the third time in the history of men’s major Golf tournaments that a player had shot 12 under, or better, through two rounds and failed to lift the trophy. Cue all the jokes about LIV golfers running out of energy when faced with having to play four rounds of Golf, rather than the three that their breakaway tour demands.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to quibble with the recent form of the Florida native. Either side of Augusta, Koepka won on the rebel tour’s stop in Orlando, and, after a tied-11th effort in Adelaide, finished third in Singapore, and ended with a share of fifth place in Tulsa. Although there is a considerable difference in the disparate courses used for the USPGA, Koepka’s event form is undeniably impressive. Two wins are supplemented by a tied-second, tied-fourth, and tied-fifth, within the past eight renewals.
If Collin Morikawa is to win his third major title at some stage in 2023, the US Open, which is the next major after the US PGA Championship in the rotation, looks to offer him his best chance. A California native, he won the USPGA in his home state in 2020 and will be licking his lips at the prospect of a visit to the North Course of the Los Angeles Country Club, in June. But majors don’t come around every day and, although each of the tracks used to host the USPGA is very different, a recent winner of the tournament demands respect. Morikawa’s tied-10th effort in The Masters made it seven top-10 finishes in his last 11 majors. The 2021 Open champion began The Masters with a pair of 69s, before a 74-72 finish. There must be a slight concern about Morikawa’s current form, though. A tied-31st effort at the Heritage was followed by a missed cut with partner Max Homa at the Zurich Classic, and a solo missed cut in the Wells Fargo.
Call him what you want as long as you call him in front
When it comes to consistent major performances, a man giving Morikawa a run for his money is his American compatriot, Xander Schauffele. The most mis-pronounced of golfers — it’s pronounced “zan-der shaw-flea” — the native of San Diego, racked up 10 top-10 finishes in majors between 2017 and 2021. By his metronomic standards, a missed cut at Augusta last year was an outlier, but there has been a return to the usual consistency in his tied-13th, tied 14th, tied 15th, and tied-10th efforts in Golf’s four signature events, since then. His past 23 majors have produced an impressive 16 top-20 finishes.
In truth, a second-round 74 scuppered his chances of a Green Jacket but Schauffele’s current form follows a similar pattern to his record in majors. He has played 13 events on the PGA Tour’s 2022-23 schedule and is yet to win, with one runners-up effort and eight top-10 finishes. That said, form figures of 4/T4/2 suggest his game is in excellent shape.
Cantlay — a man not to be opposed on the exchanges?
Schauffele’s regular Zurich Classic partner, Patrick Cantlay is a player who has received criticism for his slow play — Patrick Can-delay would be more appropriate. But what can’t be criticised is his ability to get over the line — in his own sweet time. Since turning pro in 2012, the man from Long Beach has secured eight PGA Tour titles, and he won the FedEx Cup during his Annus Mirabilis, in 2021.
After a bold showing for three rounds, Cantlay carded a disappointing 75 in Round Four at Augusta. He’s shown no ill effects since then though, finishing third in the RBC Heritage, and he and Schauffele finished tied-fourth when defending their Zurich Classic Of New Orleans pairs title. Many observers were surprised that he opted to play in the Wells Fargo Championship, after having spoken of fatigue during the week in New Orleans but he ended up finishing a respectable tied-21st.
Cameron Smith and Dustin Johnson have perhaps discovered the downside of life on the multi-million-dollar LIV Tour, in their modest major performances since joining. However, there seemed to be added determination and focus from some of their number at Augusta, with Messrs Koepka, Reed, and Mickelson showing prominently. Smith has been bedevilled by injuries in recent months. Usually, towards the head of the market for each event in the LIV Tour’s truncated schedule, Smith was unlucky to catch a tartar in the form of Talor Gooch in LIV Adelaide. Gooch opened with an astonishing pair of 62s and turned the event into a procession, leaving the field in his wake, with Smith finishing in a tie for third. He was also narrowly touched off in a playoff in the breakaway tour’s visit to Tulsa, last week. With multiple top-10 finishes in the other three majors, the USPGA hasn’t been such a happy hunting ground for the Australian. In seven previous attempts he hasn’t managed to crack the top 10.
For DJ, his first five starts on the LIV Tour this season failed to yield a top-five finish, but his fortunes changed with a win in the tour’s most recent event in Tulsa. Although he played four rounds at The Masters, a third-round 78 scuppered any chance of a high finish and he ended the tournament in a tie for 48th. Two major wins seems a meagre return for someone of DJ’s prodigious talent, but it has often been a case of what might have been. A second-place finish in the 2019 US PGA Championship — he would also finish in a tie for second the following year — made him just the eighth player to have finished second in all four majors during his career. He shot a last round 82 when he seemed to have the 2010 US Open in the bag, and he would seem to have unfinished business with the USPGA too. In 2010, he stood on the 18th tee in Round Four with a one-shot lead. A bogey on 18 had looked to have consigned him to a playoff. However, he was adjudged to have grounded his club in a bunker and the resulting two-stroke penalty dropped him to a tie for fifth.
Such is the strength in depth in men’s Golf that a case could be made for dozens of other players this week. Arguably, the USPGA provides the strongest field in Golf. Organised by the PGA of America, there are no amateurs in the 156-runner field, though 20 places are given to the club professionals in the US who make it through qualifying. The Masters usually has a field of around 90 invitees but the organisers include top amateur players, and all the tournament’s previous winners, no matter how long in the tooth they might be. The US Open extends places to regional qualifiers around the US, and over 50 places at The Open Championship each year go to international qualifiers, of varying ability.
Nevertheless, given that all bar four of the past 44 majors have gone the way of players who began that week within the top 30 in the world rankings (per Golf statistician, Justin Ray), when looking to identify the winner this week, the focus needs to be on the cream of the world’s golfing talent. Among the remaining contenders, Cameron Young has produced a top-10 finish in three of his past four major appearances. He has already finished second in the 64-man WGC Matchplay event this season, and the 26-year-old seems to have benefitted from having Webb Simpson’s former caddie, Paul Tesori, on his bag. After his exertions in the Match Play and The Masters, young Cameron has not surprisingly flagged somewhat, making the cut but finishing outside the top 50 on his last two starts.
Can Big Tone become The Big Boss?
The work of Rick German has thrown light on the key stats when assessing which players are truly performing at the top of their game. Strokes Gained: Approach to Green is at the top of the list, and few have done better in this regard this year than Tony Finau, who has led this category for much of the season. Big Tone landed the Mexico Open title, ahead of Jon Rahm and you have to go back to November for the last time Finau missed the cut of a Stroke Play event. The man who once struggled to get his head in front has now recorded six PGA Tour wins.
Once a tinkerman when it came to the flat stick, forever changing his under-performing putting stroke, Finau has resolved to opt for one putting style and retain it. Which golfing guru does Finau credit with helping him stick with this? Butch Harmon? Hank Haney? No, actually it was Bruce Lee. Yes, I wasn’t aware that the mixed martial art expert knew about putting either. It turns out, Finau reminds himself of Lee’s saying: “I fear not the man who has practised 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practised one kick 10,000 times.” He may be yet to land a knockout blow in a major, but it’s too early to count Finau out just yet.
However, Finau remains 15 major titles behind Tiger Woods. Still the biggest name in a game he used to dominate, Woods will miss the tournament as he recovers from ankle surgery after making the cut at The Masters, a feat that tied the all-time record of 23 consecutive cuts made at Augusta.
Fairytale of New York?
Two years ago, Woods’ long-time arch-rival, Phil Mickelson rolled back the years to win a major as a 200/1 outsider. Surely, such a big-priced outsider couldn’t win the US PGA Championship at Oak Hill? Wanamaker bet?