US PGA: Rory McIlroy heads field as world’s best battle Kiawah

Fearsome Ocean Course is set to be a severe test, especially if the wind gets up

Jim Herman marks his ball on the third hole during a practice round prior to the 2021 US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island Resort’s Ocean Course. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Jim Herman marks his ball on the third hole during a practice round prior to the 2021 US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island Resort’s Ocean Course. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

 

For all those with aspirations to lift this 103rd edition of the US PGA Championship, the scale of the challenge at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island in South Carolina is huge.

As ever, the Wanamaker Trophy is the largest of all the Major silverware, while the seaside layout - which stretches to 7,876 off the tips - is the longest in Major championship history. “For the sake of our sanity, I believe they’re going to use a couple forward tees,” said Jon Rahm, in what sounded like a plea to the senses of those in the PGA of America tasked with laying out the examination.

“It’s a big golf course, it’s got a lot of risk-reward, but it gives you some leeway in terms of you’ve got the skills around the greens, you can get it up-and-down,” observed Pádraig Harrington.

In all likelihood, the test will be tailored to suit the needs of the players and to ensure that rounds are manageable within the four hours 40 minutes time envisaged for 18 holes. “Unless the PGA want seven hour rounds,” observed Justin Thomas of the need for some common sense to prevail as a loaded field, with 99 of the world’s top-100 ranked players, Matthew Wolff being the odd man out, go in search of the season’s second Major.

Of them, three are Irish - Rory McIlroy, Harrington and Shane Lowry; and, for two of them, the Pete Dye-designed course has provided past triumphs: McIlroy was a runaway winner of the PGA on its last staging on the Ocean Course in 2012, while Harrington teamed-up with Paul McGinley to win the World Cup in 1997. What Lowry wouldn’t give to join them.

Distractions

“I just love the competition, love competing at the highest level. When I won The Open (at Royal Portrush in 2019), I looked forward to the distractions of it all and what winning a Major brings,” said Lowry, one of no fewer than 35 Major champions - with 56 titles between them - competing with an eye on the prize and more than happy if further distractions were to come his way.

Shane Lowry of Ireland plays a shot as Claude Harmon III looks on during a practice round. Photo: Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Shane Lowry of Ireland plays a shot as Claude Harmon III looks on during a practice round. Photo: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The challenge, as is the PGA of America’s way, is likely to be difficult but fair. “Overall, I think what this golf course is going to test, it’s going to test your ability to adapt and then be ready for change. You’re going to have nine holes that are into (the wind) and nine holes that are against; and how are you going to be able to figure out how to just stay patient and play some great golf,” said Collin Morikawa, the defending champion, who will need an improvement with putter in hand if he is to have a chance to retain the trophy.

Morikawa is ranked 186th in putting on the PGA Tour this season but has worked on sorting out what he termed some “bad habits” in recent weeks. “I’ve shown that when I do putt well, I’m able to play really well. I’m able to put myself in contention,” he said.

Such intrigue, for sure, adds paint strokes in forming the bigger picture. Thomas, for one, can leapfrog Dustin Johnson into the world number one spot with a win, while Jordan Spieth can expand the career Grand Slam from five members to six if he can get his hands on the Wanamaker Trophy. “I’ve done a very poor job of getting ready for this one,” said Spieth, referring to being in isolation for a period after contracting Covid. “I feel better about where I am now than I was a month ago sitting on a couch.”

As Spieth is only too aware, momentum is a huge driving force in golf. And, with five top-10s in his last six tournament outings, including a win in the Valero Texas Open, he is one of those players with it.

So too, Hideki Matsuyama. The Japanese player is aiming for back-to-back Major triumphs, having made his breakthrough in the Masters last month, but - like Spieth - was sidelined by Covid restrictions in the meantime after having to undergo quarantine on his return to his homeland. He eased his way back into competition at the Byron Nelson last week (tied-39th) and will be sharper for playing with card in hand.

Remedy

Yet, of everyone, the one with most momentum looks to be McIlroy. The manner of his win in the Wells Fargo - his third career success at Quail Hollow - a fortnight ago provided a remedy to golfing ills apparent in missed cuts at The Players and the Masters, with his mind and body in a much better place.

And, as history has shown in the Northern Irishman’s case, winning can become a habit. Without a Major win since claiming the fourth of his career when lifting the Wanamaker Trophy in the gathering dusk of Valhalla in 2014, McIlroy is overdue another.

Phil Mickelson plays his shot from the seventh tee. Photo: Maddie Meyer/PGA of America/PGA of America via Getty Images
Phil Mickelson plays his shot from the seventh tee. Photo: Maddie Meyer/PGA of America/PGA of America via Getty Images

There are no guarantees in life, least of all in sport; but McIlroy’s mojo has returned and that is as good a starting point as any. The task, for one and all, will be to work a route from one to 18 and onwards to the 72nd hole come Sunday. “I’ve just got to go out there, play my game, and if I play my game somewhat close to the best of my ability, I’m sure I’ll have a good chance,” said McIlroy.

Kiawah Island Ocean Course key holes

4th - 484 Yards Par 4

Just a very, very difficult hole. The first objective is clearly to get a good drive away but, typical of designer Pete Dye, even that task is not straightforward. There is more space down the right side of the fairway but the best angle in to the green is from the left. If the hole is playing into the wind, there is a bail-out area short left of the green where players may be content to aim and rely on their short games for an up-and-down par save.

13th - Par 4 497 yards

A beast of a hole off the back tees, although Dye also incorporated an allowance to play off a more forward tee (to a narrower landing area on the fairway) to offer different challenges should the PGA of America so wish. The hole features a canal of water down the right hand side which is very much in play while a number of strategically-positioned bunkers lie in wait down the left for those who don’t commit to the drive. The putting surface is guarded by two sandy areas

17th - Par 3 223 yards

The signature hole and one which will likely be the making or breaking of the new champion. Of the challenge off the tee, Pádraig Harrington remarked: “It’s quite straightforward, don’t hit it in the water!” The tee-shot is a carry over water to a large green (some 44 yards in depth) that has two large bunkers to the left. Course designer Dye described the hole as his “favourite” of all on the Ocean Course and the potential for interesting pin placements only add to the likely challenge.

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