Saturday 20 January 2018

McIlroy aiming for hat-trick

Rory McIlroy will look to add to his Open victory from earlier this year
Rory McIlroy will look to add to his Open victory from earlier this year

Europe's golfers have returned to the scene of their only Ryder Cup defeat this century for the 96th US PGA Championship, which gets under way on Thursday.

But they have rarely been in better shape to turn team disappointment into individual glory, in a year which has already produced major champions in Martin Kaymer and Rory McIlroy.

Kaymer narrowly missed out on qualifying for a place on the team at Valhalla in 2008 but was invited by European captain Nick Faldo in order to gain experience of the event, while McIlroy had only turned professional the year before.

Six years on the pair have joined 10 members of that beaten side - only Soren Hansen and Oliver Wilson have not qualified - in Louisville, with Kaymer the reigning US Open champion and McIlroy fresh from winning his last two events, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the Open Championship.

Victory on Sunday took McIlroy back to the top of the world rankings and there are three other European players in the top five in Sergio Garcia - runner-up to McIlroy at Royal Liverpool and Firestone - Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose.

All four of them, plus world number two Adam Scott, could end the week as world number one if they are holding the Wanamaker Trophy aloft on Sunday, but McIlroy is a hot favourite to deny them that opportunity in style with a third-straight win and fourth major title.

The 25-year-old acknowledged fatigue, following his recent exploits, could be a factor by giving himself a day off on Monday, but could do so safe in the knowledge that the 7,458-yard par 71 is expected to play right into his hands.

"I feel like the guys who hit the ball high and soft have a distinct advantage because you're hitting to a small section of the green," Phil Mickelson said. "Almost every shot into the green is a full shot, bringing it in as high and soft as you can."

The statistics are also on McIlroy's side, with all three major winners so far this year having won one previously; Bubba Watson won his second Masters title, Kaymer added the US Open to his US PGA win in 2010 and McIlroy completed the third leg of a career Grand Slam by lifting the Claret Jug.

Since 1934, there have only been three occasions when all the winners of the year's majors have been repeat champions.

"I think experience and knowing what it feels like to be in that position is a huge thing," McIlroy said. "It's a great thing to be able to fall back on and that's what you're seeing with some of the guys coming through now. They have got that experience and they have got a little bit more know-how into how to handle that situation better.

"It took me a couple of goes to get comfortable with the position of being in the mix in a major in the back nine on Sunday. You need those experiences to try and help you and I think it's a very important part of trying to close out tournaments, having the experience to fall back on."

The US PGA has produced surprise winners in the past with the likes of Rich Beem (2002), Shaun Micheel (2003) and YE Yang (2009) claiming the title, but the recent trend has seen the cream rise to the top.

Since Darren Clarke and Keegan Bradley won the last two majors of 2011 when 111th and 108th in the world respectively, the lowest ranked winner of any major has been Ernie Els, who was 40th when he won the 2012 Open at Lytham.

Last year, Scott was ranked seventh when he won the Masters, Rose fifth before his US Open triumph at Merion and Mickelson also fifth before his Open victory at Muirfield. Jason Dufner was 21st when he won the US PGA at Oak Hill.

So far in 2014, Watson was ranked 12th before claiming his second green jacket, Kaymer 28th before winning at Pinehurst and McIlroy eighth before winning at Royal Liverpool.

Now back as world number one, McIlroy is such a strong favourite that Garcia was asked if being one shot ahead of McIlroy on Sunday night would be enough to win.

"Obviously's it not easy to win three times in a row," the world number three said. "The way he's playing he might be able to do it. I just want to play as well as I can and the future will tell me where I should end up.

"If you're one shot ahead of him, you should be up there, but I don't know if it will be good enough. There's a lot of other great players that are playing here."

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