By Dave Kaplan
As the world’s best descend on Charlotte, North Carolina for the season’s fourth and final major, all eyes will certainly be on Jordan Spieth, who, with a win, would become the youngest player in the history of the game to complete the career Grand Slam. If he can pull it off, Spieth will join Gene Sarazen, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods as the only players who have successfully won all four majors over the course of their careers. The 24-year-old has really ratcheted up his game over the last two months with two victories over his last three starts, including his blistering finish at Royal Birkdale where he went five-under over his last five holes to win his first Claret Jug! Now, the Texan has his sights set on the Wannamaker trophy and I’ve got to say, I like the kid’s chances considering how hot his putter has been lately.
However, even though Spieth has played like a man possessed since late May, he is not the odds-on favourite to win this week at Quail Hollow. That distinction goes to Rory McIlroy, who has absolutely dominated the George W. Cobb design throughout his career. The Northern Irishman has not only won twice at Quail Hollow (2010 and 2015), but he also has three other Top-10 finishes there and owns the course record. Plus, McIlroy appears to have turned a corner in recent weeks after struggling with both his striking and putting for a large portion of the season. After stumbling out of the gate at the Open in July with five bogeys in his first six holes, McIlroy turned his week around with some inspired play and finished in a tie for fourth place. Then, at the WGC-Bridgestone last week, the 28-year-old carded four straights rounds in the 60s to net his second Top-5 in as many starts. Although McIlroy has not had a win on the PGA Tour this season and just split up with his long-time caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, prior to last week’s event, everything still seems to be falling into place for the 2016 FedEx Cup winner to leave Quail Hollow with his second Wannamaker Trophy and fifth major championship title.
Incredibly, with so much focus on Spieth and McIlroy, World No. 1 Dustin Johnson has been flying under the radar this week. DJ has not recorded a victory since he reeled off three in a row earlier this spring, but he has recently been showing signs of life with a T8 finish at the Canadian Open and a T17 in Ohio last week. Many thought that the South Carolinian would waltz to at least one major title this season after his spectacular start to the year. However, somewhat surprisingly, Johnson has proven to be a non-factor in all three of this year’s major tournaments. The 33-year-old withdrew from the Masters after slipping on the steps of his rental home, missed the cut at the US Open in Wisconsin, and then finished in a tie for 54th at the Open last month. This trend cannot continue forever and I fully expect the buck to stop here this week, considering how well DJ’s power game suits the lengthy and narrow Quail Hollow.
If you recall, Spieth’s victory at Royal Birkdale snapped a streak of seven-straight first-time major winners and there is no reason to think that the start of a similar streak won’t begin anew on Sunday afternoon in Charlotte. There is no shortage of extremely skilled and/or accomplished players that are yet to break through for their first major wins. Two players, however, stand out for me as very possible candidates to win at Quail Hollow this week.
Hideki Matsuyama won his third event of the season on Sunday — fourth, if you count his win at the 18-man Hero World Challenge in December — after carding a course-record tying round of 61 in his final round at Firestone. The Japanese superstar has only missed one cut all season long and has been in contention at each of the year’s first three majors (T11 at the Masters, T2 at the US Open, and T14 at the Open). Additionally, Matsuyama is ranked 8th in strokes gained tee-to-green, 10th in strokes gained off-the-tee, and 10th overall in greens in regulation percentage. However, it is his putter that makes the biggest difference in the 25-year-old’s game and when he has the type of command with his putter that he demonstrated last week at the WGC-Bridgestone, he can be extremely hard to beat!
Rickie Fowler also strikes me as a prime candidate to break through for his first major this week. The Californian has won at Quail Hollow before, having defeated McIlroy in a playoff there in 2012, and has had a really strong season to this point despite winning only one tournament. In just 16 total starts this year, Fowler has accrued seven finishes of T-6 or better, including a tie for fifth at the U.S. Open. And, just like Matsuyama, Fowler has also been in contention at every major this year. Moreover, the 2010 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year is near the top in almost every important strokes-gained statistic. He is ranked second in total strokes gained, 3rd in strokes gained with the putter, 9th in strokes gained approaching-the-green, and 11th in strokes gained tee-to-green. Oh, and he’s first overall in sand saves, getting up and down from the bunker a whopping 70.5% of the time! I have no doubt that all of those tools will come in handy at Quail Hollow this week.
Regardless of who comes out on top, you just know that this week is going to be very exciting. Quail Hollow is one of the best possible venues in the country for major championships because of its terrifying and dramatic finishing set of holes — one that has been cleverly dubbed “The Green Mile” over the years.
This finishing stretch routinely derails rounds and is sure to play a significant part down the stretch at this year’s PGA Championship. Plus, the course has been revamped since last year with the intention of making scoring that much more difficult. There have been many changes, but the most significant alteration has to be the track’s opening hole, which used to play as a lay-up par-four. That hole has now been combined with what used to be the 2nd — a former short par 3 — to make a truly gargantuan 524-yard par-four opener that is certain to rattle some cages.
(You can read up on all the other changes here)
To be perfectly frank, I don’t even care who wins this week! I just want to see a heavyweight battle between some of the world’s best players … and from the way things are shaping up heading into the tournament, I don’t think I’m going to be disappointed come Sunday.
Dave Kaplan is a Toronto-based freelance writer and golf fanatic who is sneaky long off the tee. He’s on a crusade to inject a youthful perspective into golf media, especially the broadcast booth. Follow him on Twitter @davykap