Saturday 1 October 2016

McIlroy primed to be in mix for Baltusrol glory

US Open champion Johnson the man to beat as big guns prepare to do battle for last Major of the season

Published 25/07/2016 | 02:30

A magnificent view of Baltusrol Golf Club with the clubhouse in the background. Photo: PGA
A magnificent view of Baltusrol Golf Club with the clubhouse in the background. Photo: PGA

Baltusrol, located in Springfield, New Jersey, takes the golfing spotlight this week as host venue of the 98th US PGA Championship.

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The excitement of the fantastic duel at Troon between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson last Sunday week has heightened the appetite for more drama as a field packed with Major and Tour champions convenes at this renowned golf complex.

Talking points and topics will be debated across all media outlets and platforms before the action begins on Thursday.

These are some of the questions which will occupy the attention of golf fans at home and abroad this week . . .

Rory McIlroy: can he end his two-year Major drought?

The answer has to be: yes, of course McIlroy can win the final Major of the season.

Form fluctuates, but class is permanent, and the former world number one has the quality to win his third US PGA title and the fifth of his career.

But will he win? Well, that's another question.

The opposition is formidable, the motivation of such luminaries as Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson will be intense, but rule McIlroy out at your peril.

He came away from Troon in the Open championship tied-fifth and saying: "Obviously I've missed a few short putts this week, but I'm not really putting that down to anything.

"I think I just need to do a little bit of work, and maybe just be a bit more confident over them. But tee to green was good, and I can only be positive going into Baltusrol, really.

"I'm playing well. I'm driving the ball great. I think that's a big thing, especially with the PGA coming up.

"In the PGA, usually if you can drive the ball well, you'll do well, and I've had success in that tournament before, so I'm really happy with that. I'll go there feeling pretty good about myself."

McIlroy's four previous Major wins came with some spectacular scoring, notably in his 2011 US Open at Congressional where he won with a four round total of 16-under par, 268, finishing eight shots clear of the field.

The US PGA at Kiawah Island in 2012 also yielded an eight shot winning margin at 13-under par.

At Hoylake in the Open of 2014, McIlroy blazed around in 17-under par over the four days, but there were plenty of other good scores, and his 271 was only two better than joint second-placed Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia.

Valhalla, 2014, a few weeks after the Hoylake win, went down to the wire. Yes, McIlroy got to 16-under, but just a single shot separated the champion from runner-up Phil Mickelson as the championship finished in darkness.

Perceived wisdom is that McIlroy thrives on courses which favour high scoring and with receptive greens, but I believe he's good enough to do whatever is required at Baltusrol.

If that means a four-under or five-under total to finish a shot ahead of the next best, he's capable of grinding out that kind of score to win.

Is age and experience as much a factor as it proved in Troon?

Statistically, the PGA tends to favour younger players, especially in the last six stagings of the event.

Jason Day was 27 when breaking his Major hoodoo at Whistling Straits last year. Rory McIlroy was 25 in 2014 when he won the PGA for the second time, and only 23 when claiming it in 2012.

Jason Dufner struck a blow for the 30-somethings, as he was 36 at the time of his 2013 victory, while Keegan Bradley (2011) and Martin Kaymer (2010) were both 25.

Jordan Spieth: will he have to wait until at least 2017 for a third Major?

Not if the driven young man from Dallas, Texas has anything to do with it. His Majors record since 2015 is: Masters (1st); US Open (1st); British Open (T-4); US PGA (2nd); Masters (T-2); US Open (T-37), British Open (T-30th).

True, 2015 was a super year and the standards set were massive. Also true, Spieth pretty well putted like God last year, and he's not quite as sharp on the greens right now. That said, he presents a clear and present danger to anyone with ambitions of winning the Wanamaker Trophy.

Spieth has already won twice on the PGA Tour in 2016, and if he had taken just a bogey on the infamous 12th at Augusta in the final round, it's very doubtful if Danny Willett would possess a Green Jacket.

What are the chances of a win by a complete outsider?

John Daly's epic adventure that brought him from ninth alternate to championship winner at Crooked Stick, Indiana, is the stuff of legend.

A script writer's dream theme for a film, it's hard to credit that it actually happened.

Daly had won his PGA Tour card at Q-School in 1990, finishing 14th. Once out on Tour in 1991, he soon attracted rave notices because of his long-hitting, but a Major champion in the making? Come on, that wasn't on the cards - until it actually happened.

Daly got the call to play the US PGA at short notice, and drove through the night to make his tee-time. Oh - and then he went beat all-comers without a practice round.

The legend was launched, and so was a career memorable for huge highs and lows, including, by his own admission, an estimated $60 million dollars blown on gambling.

But Daly, now 50 and in his debut season on the Champions Tour, is in the field at Baltusrol, 25 years after his stunning success.

Keegan Bradley, in 2011, did not have such a dramatic overnight journey, but he also won the US PGA in his rookie campaign on the PGA Tour.

Shaun Micheel in 2003 was another surprise.

So, the answer is: 'Yes'. There is always a possibility of a shock win because this, of all the Majors, clearly has the potential to produce a champion from left field.

Will we see a fourth first-time Major win of the 2016 season?

Danny Willett at Augusta; Dustin Johnson at Oakmont; Henrik Stenson at Royal Troon, so why not a new entry to the Major champions' club at Baltusrol?

If any of the 'Big Four' are not to win, and barring a Bradley/Micheel type of outsider coming through, we're probably looking at a seasoned competitor who has been knocking on the door for some time and coming close to a breakthrough.

Rickie Fowler springs to mind and nobody would begrudge Sergio Garcia a long-awaited Major victory. South Africa's Branden Grace is another possibility.

We need to talk about Baltusrol

First, the name. Baltus Roll, of Dutch ancestry, once farmed the land on which the course was later developed.

Roll was murdered in Feburary, 1831 by thieves desperate for money. The land was purchased in 1885 by newspaper publisher Louis Keller who wanted to build a golf course.

Keller chose a version of Roll's name for the new club. Baltusrol has hosted 14 top championships, including seven men's US Opens, and the 2005 US PGA.

Of the last three men's championships, Jack Nicklaus (US Open 1980) scored eight-under par 272, and Lee Janzen (US Open 1993) also shot eight-under.

Phil Mickelson (US PGA 2005) ended up with four-under, 276, winning by just a single shot, with Thomas Bjorn and Steve Elkington in joint second place on 275.

Don't expect to see huge scores under-par this week.

DJ and Jason Day: their prospects?

It's 'Goodnight, Vienna' for Jason Day, unless he can emulate Tiger Woods by retaining the title.

Woods is the only PGA champion to record successive wins since the tournament adopted a strokeplay format in 1958.

Being Tiger, he did the double twice: first in 1999 and 2000, and again in 2006 and '07.

Championship tradition militates against a Day victory, but Dustin Johnson has to be rated a seriously good prospect for a second Major title of this season.

He showed in Canada that his game is in good shape and, now that he has the US Open on his CV, DJ is the man to beat at Baltusrol.

Irish Independent

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