US PGA 2019: Black course will test McIlroy’s driving and determination

Challenging set-up will suit a certain type of golfer – one who can hit 300 yards-plus

At one point during his final preparations ahead of this 101st edition of the US PGA Championship, Rory McIlroy engaged in a playful distraction with a police security sniffer dog. Why not? For the 30-year-old Northern Irishman, any opportunity to have respite away from the Black course here at Bethpage on Long Island was to be taken. Play time wouldn't last long, the mind – like everyone else's – too consumed by the challenge ahead.

If reputations are meant to instil fear, then this notoriously difficult layout, which is set to test the mental strength, shot-making and physical fibre of each and every player in the field, has claimed some sort of hierarchal place. Yet, as we know, someone will succeed in lifting aloft the Wanamaker Trophy.

But who?

Where once upon a time his seemed the only storyline in town at the height of his golfing dominance, Tiger Woods's victory at the US Masters – his 15th career Major – has again restored him as a central character in the narrative, that pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's 18 very much back in the frame. Yet, this most demanding of courses will ask serious questions of his body, if not his mind.


Rest up

Woods – who arrived ahead of virtually everyone to prepare last week, berthing his boat in Oyster Bay – didn’t even make it to the course for the final practice day yesterday, preferring to rest up.

And what of Jordan Spieth, seeking to complete the career Grand Slam? If not quite carrying the hype of expectations that McIlroy shouldered at Augusta, Spieth – if his driver behaves, and his putter too – is convinced that time is on his side. As Spieth put it: "If I continue to stay healthy and play well, I'll have, I don't know, 30 chances at it. One of them is bound to go my way, right?"

Spieth's form – without a win since the British Open at Royal Birkdale almost two years ago – most likely will have to wait for another time, as the key to conquering this course will require long and straight driving. "Long, very long and extremely long," said Francesco Molinari of the primary challenge facing players.

And so, a certain type of player has an edge: long, straight. Those golfing bombers who like to flex their muscles. Think Brooks Koepka. Think Dustin Johnson. Think McIlroy. Think Jon Rahm. Think Justin Rose, who – through fitness, strength and technique – added yardage to his drives in recent years in what he termed "Project 300", to join that band of players capable of carrying their drives 300 yards-plus.


“A golf course like this, I think if you look at it, I could be proved wrong, but I would say this is the kind of golf course where maybe you’re looking at the field not necessarily as 156 but maybe looking at 30, 40 guys that maybe can win this tournament based on the length, and I think driving the golf ball and distance will be a really big advantage this week,” said Rose.

And, as evidenced in finishing second behind Max Homa in the traditional Long Drive competition, Shane Lowry – who hit a drive of 310 yards – would like to think of himself as part of that club. However, the Offalyman warned of the dangers of playing out of the rough too much.

You have to hit the ball in the fairway. I think that's a big stat. Fairways are very much a premium this week

“It reminds me a little bit of how you would want to play a US Open and Oakmont, if you missed the fairway, get back into the fairway and give myself a 15-footer for par and hole those putts.”

McIlroy agreed with Lowry’s appraisal. “You have to hit the ball in the fairway. I think that’s a big stat. Obviously you still need to get it out there, but at the same time you’re going to give yourself a much better chance playing from these fairways because it is playing long, and if you start to miss these fairways you’re not going to be able to get to the greens out of the rough with a four- or five-iron. I think fairways are very much a premium this week.”


That kind of patience and course management will, of course, be key for whoever ultimately lays claim to the prize in the PGA’s move to a May date, on a course which has taken heavy rainfall in the past week. Again, that’s another factor which plays into the hands of those who bomb the ball.

Koepka, the defending champion, a player who has won two of the last four Majors, fits the bill. Unfazed by the course, unfazed by what is required to win a Major.

I feel sometimes at major championships courses you are brought to the edge, and sometimes good shots are punished

And which brings us back to McIlroy. The days, weeks, months and years since the fourth of his Major titles – the 2014 US PGA – have drawn out longer than he, or anyone, could have predicted.

Certainly, he’s not intimidated by the course’s length. “You get rewarded for good shots, and you get punished for bad ones. I feel sometimes at major championships courses you are brought to the edge, and sometimes good shots are punished. Whether that’s fair or not is up for debate, but I think it’s a very fair golf course. I think the set-up is very fair,” said McIlroy.

Perhaps an end to that streak is imminent. Perhaps here?

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times