DEREK LAWRENSON: Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy can capitalise on golf’s recent optimism ahead of the US PGA with stellar duo on song for the last major before Saudi revolution… while Jordan Spieth eyes career Grand Slam
- Tiger Woods plays in a threeball with Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth on day one
- Woods and McIlroy will be the biggest draws in the absence of Phil Mickelson
- Masters Champion Scottie Scheffler tees off in a stellar grouping of his own
- Scheffler will play with two other major winners – Jon Rahm and Collin Morikawa
As the final major before the game tilts on its axis and enters a world of lawsuits and bitter division, it is no wonder golf is looking forward to the 104th US PGA Championship, which begins on Thursday, with particular relish.
By the time we get to the US Open next month, the Saudi-backed disrupters will be up and running, Ryder Cup legends will have cast aside long-held loyalties to join the rebels and we will see who blinks first when it comes to bans from the PGA and DP World Tours.
In the meantime, the major once considered the runt of the litter has duly taken on an added lustre, helped by a healthy list of fascinating storylines.
The US PGA has been helped by a healthy list of storylines this year, including Tiger Woods
Ever since the Masters five weeks ago, there has been speculation as to what happens next for two of the men who made it so memorable. Helpfully, they will spend the first two days walking the fairways together.
In the absence of defending champion Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are the two biggest draws in the field. Both left Augusta with grounds for optimism.
In his own words, Woods felt like he had ‘climbed Everest’ in making it through 72 holes and, while Southern Hills lives up to its name, it is Ben Nevis by comparison. For McIlroy, it was the mental release of finally playing as he can in a major again and the addictive joy that accompanied a final-round 64.
Defending champion Phil Mickelson is absent from the field amid his recent controversies
Rory McIlroy (above), alongside Woods, is one of the biggest draws at this year’s US PGA
TOP THREE CONTENDERS
1 Scottie Scheffler (11-1)
Struggled a bit since his Augusta triumph. But, on one of his favourite courses, don’t be surprised if the Masters champion keeps firing.
2 Cam Smith (20-1)
Took five weeks off to get over his tied third place at Augusta. Has the short game to make full amends here.
3 Hideki Matsuyama (28-1)
Neck problems wrecked his Masters defence. Now fully fit again, he looks in the mood to bring more rapture to his golf-obsessed nation.
… and an outsider
Abraham Ancer (80-1)
No great form coming into the event but he went to college in Oklahoma, loves playing in the wind and is great around the greens.
Now we wait to see if Woods can become a contender again at the place where he claimed the 13th of his 15 majors in 2007. And can McIlroy play so freely in the first round of a big event?
Their efforts will take place at a venue that has come as a positive revelation. The last time we were in these parts, the course was a generic American country club layout with few distinguishing features, played in August in unpleasantly hot temperatures. What a job architect Gil Hanse has done with its restoration, thinning out the trees and allowing natural features to be seen and become meaningful parts of the course once more.
The 17th, arguably the most interesting hole on the course, is a classic case in point. In 2007, the creek to the right of the green could hardly be seen because of woodland. Now, it will play its part at a hole destined to have a significant bearing on the outcome.
Completing the stellar three-ball on Thursday morning will be Jordan Spieth, who has even more at stake with the career Grand Slam on the line. Befitting a man in form, he is embracing the prospect of holding the Wanamaker Trophy aloft rather than shying away from it.
‘I don’t go around talking about it but it’s clearly the elephant in the room when it comes to my career,’ he said. ‘If I could only win one more tournament for the rest of my life, then it would obviously be this one.’
As for his playing partners, he added: ‘You have to enjoy threeballs like this, the ones you’ll tell your kids about when they’re older. Tiger and Rory are dream players to be paired with, there’s no one in the field with more majors than they have.
‘The way I’m looking at it is if I come through playing alongside them with the crowds that will be watching and my chances intact, then the weekend might feel like a breather by comparison.’
While this trio will command much of the attention in the morning wave, there is another standout group after lunch in the shape of the trio who hold the other three majors — Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, US Open winner Jon Rahm and Open champion Collin Morikawa.
Jordan Spieth will complete the stellar threeball with McIlroy and Woods on Thursday
Masters champion Scottie Scheffler (above) heads out with two other major winners – Jon Rahm and Collin Morikawa
As for the British and Irish challenge, this is the major which has not had an English winner for more than a century, a victory for Jim Barnes in 1919.
There are a couple of candidates who appear to have the short games to cope with the sloping greens and run-off areas that will place a high premium on chipping. Matt Fitzpatrick has played consistently well all year in America, while Tyrrell Hatton invariably saves his best stuff for stringent tests such as this one.
Helping both will be the fact it will not be birdie-laden with a winning score in the region of 20 under. The weather will be a factor, with breezes forecast for at least three days from different directions.
Now, more than ever, the majors matter. In the city where a museum opened last week dedicated to Bob Dylan, we wait to see what answers lie blowing in the Oklahoma wind.
THURSDAY’S SELECTED TEE TIMES
US unless stated. All UK times.
HOLE ONE — 2.06pm: Jason Dufner, Stewart Cink, Padraig Harrington (Ire).
2.28pm: Richard Bland (Eng), Matt Jones (Aus), Garrick Higgo (SA).
7.03pm: Brooks Koepka, Shane Lowry (Ire), Adam Scott (Aus).
7.14pm: Patrick Cantlay, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas.
7.25pm: Jason Day (Aus), Rickie Fowler, Harold Varner III.
7.36pm: Collin Morikawa, Jon Rahm (Spa), Scottie Scheffler.
7.47pm: Daniel Berger, Ian Poulter (Eng), Louis Oosthuizen (SA).
7.58pm: Billy Horschel, Kevin Kisner, Tommy Fleetwood (Eng).
8.09pm: Matt Fitzpatrick (Eng), Sergio Garcia (Spa), Charl Schwartzel (SA).
HOLE 10 — 1.49pm: Bryson DeChambeau, Max Homa, Tyrrell Hatton (Eng).
2pm: Viktor Hovland (Nor), Cam Smith (Aus), Will Zalatoris.
2.11pm: Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy (NI).
2.22pm: Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson, Justin Rose (Eng).
2.55pm: Gary Woodland, Lee Westwood (Eng), Francesco Molinari (Ita).
Start: 1pm, Southern Hills Country Club, Tulsa, Oklahoma.
TV & radio: LIVE on Sky Sports, updates on BBC 5 Live.
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