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Rory's the Quail Hollow favourite

 

Rory McIlroy hasn't had the best of seasons in 2017 and is still without a win, but he's one of the strong favourites to win the season's final major, the US PGA Championship which tees off on Thursday.

At 13/2 he's the clear favourite of the British bookmakers followed by 2017 Open Champion Jordan Spieth at 9/1, last week's Bridgestone Invitational winner Hideki Matsuyama at 11/1, World No 1 Dustin Johanson at 12/1, major nearly-man Rickie Fowler at 16/1 and, at 22/1, Jon Rahm, Spain's latest rookie sensation, and Brooks Koepke, the aggressive US young gun who captured the US Open in June.

That's just some of the imposing array of world class talent McIlroy will have to beat if he is to justify the faith being shown in him by both the bookies and most fantasy golf tipsters and win the PGA Championship's imposing Wanamaker Trophy for a third time. So what's behind the strong backing he's getting this week?

Part of it is his record in the PGA Championship which he won in 2014 and 2016 and his apparent ability to produce his best golf at the back end of the season when, in various years, he has also won the FedEx Cup in the US and the Race to Dubai in Europe, but perhaps even more important is his standout record at the Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is hosting its first ever PGA Championship this week.

No pro in today's field can claim to have played this unforgiving course better or to have won more money on it than the 28-year-old Northern Irishman.

He won his first PGA Tour title, the Quail Hollow Championship, there in 2010 with a storming 66 and 62 finish and then shot a 61 when he won there again in the Wells Fargo Championship in 2015.

True, there have been some massive changes made to Quail Hollow since it was last in play on the PGA Tour and, because this was in part to cater for its first major, it's already difficult layout which has been lengthened to 7,600 yards and has seen its par reduced from 72 to 71, could prove to be even tougher than it was on the old set-up when its scoring average was +0.953 strokes to par and +2.936 on its gruelling 'Green Mile', the 16th, 17th and 18th holes.

The 18th, in fact, was rated as the hardest finishing hole on the Tour in 2014 and 2016 and might well ensure a dramatic finish this year in which nothing is cut and dried until the fat lady sings. 

But it will be the same for everyone and it is more than likely that McIlroy, who seems to have turned the corner in his last two outings, the Open Championship and the Bridgestone Invitational, where he finished strongly to pick up two top fives, will still be better tuned to it than most, despite the changes and despite having a new caddy.

As he has said, “It's always been, I guess, a modern player's golf course. If you can drive it a long way, there's an advantage there.”  And that advantage could well be even greater this time for the Irish big banger who ranks alongside the likes of Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and young guns Jon Rahm of Spain and Thomas Pieters of Belgium when it comes to hitting the ball a long way.

A Golfweather.com forecast of rain and thunderstorms on the first two days might also suit McIlroy, who as an Emerald Isle resident, will have cut his golfing teeth in wet weather, but of course this doesn't mean that some of the season's bigger form men like World No 2 Spieth, already a triple major champion at 24, and the World No 3 Hideki Matsuyama can't win, especially if McIlroy allows inconsistency and a tendency to lose focus to once more upset his momentum.

Both Spieth, who could be fired up at the prospect of becoming one of only a handful of men to have won all four majors, and Matsuyama, who is seeking his first, had a commanding presence about them while marching to their respective wins at Royal Birkdale and Firestone Country Club.

If repeated it could make them very difficult men to beat.

PGA Tour fantasy tipster Rob Bolton tops his list of favourites with Matsuyama saying: "It's his time. Fresh off that tee-to-green clinic at Firestone where he locked into another gear, he's poised to make history as Japan's first major champion."

And Dustin Johnson? The all-powerful warrior we knew in 2016 simply hasn't materialised this year and without too much recent evidence that he's ready to hit the big time again, it is more likely that the US's other major-winning Johnson, Zach, who looks to be reaching a peak at just the right time after his runner-up finish at Firestone last week, has a greater chance of winning - and adding a PGA title to The Masters and The Open he's already won.

So far, we have spoken mainly about tried and tested major winners, but it is important to bear in mind that of the last 10 PGA Championship winners, six of them, namely this year's defending champion Jimmy Walker, Jason Day at Whistling Straits in 2015, Jason Dufner at Oak Hill in 2013, Keegan Bradley at Atlanta AC in 2011, Martin Kaymer at Whistling Straits in 2010 and YE Yang at Hazeltine in 2009 were all first-time major winners.

It may also be relevant that these last 10 winners ranged in age between 23 and 37 which means of course that this week's PGA Champion could just as easily be a young gun like a Rahm, a Pieters, a Justin Thomas or a Tommy Fleetwood as it could be a seasoned, still-to-win-a-major golfer like a Fowler, a Paul Casey, a Matt Kuchar or even a 40-year-old Charley Hoffman, who, this year, has proved to be a real threat to the winners, especially at Riviera, Bay Hill and Firestone.

And let's not forget the year's other major winner, Sergio Garcia (Masters) who broke his drought by winning a Green Jacket at Augusta National in April?

Yes, there are all kinds of possibilities which should make for an intriguing battle of witts and skill that in the end will be won by the big hitter with the coolest head, the most effective putting stroke and the best battle plan.

The possibilities are wide-ranging, but I like Spieth - if he can refrain from beating himself up after awry shots. He's not the longest driver, but nor is he the shortest and on his day nobody hits more greens from the rough or putts better

THE PGA CHAMPIONSHIPS LAST 10 WINNERS

2016 Jimmy Walker (Baltusrol) - 14
2015 Jason Day (Whistling Straits) - 20
2014 Rory McIlroy (Valhalla) -16
2013 Jason Dufner (Oak Hill) -10
2012 Rory McIlroy (Kiawah Island) -13
2011 Keegan Bradley (Atlanta Athletic Club) -8
2010 Martin Kaymer (Whistling Straits) -11
2009 YE Yang (Hazeltine) -8
2008 Padraig Harrington (Oakland Hills) -3
2007 Tiger Woods (Southern Hills) -8.

LEADING ODDS
(Tuesday am, August 8, 2017)

Rory McIlroy 13/2
Jordan Spieth 9/1
Hideki Matsuyama 11/1
Dustin Johnson 12/1
Rickie Fowler 16/1
Jon Rahm 22/1
Brooks Koepka 22/1
Jason Day 28/1
Justin Rose 35/1
Adam Scott 35/1
Sergio Garcia 40/1
Justin Thomas 40/1
Paul Casey 40/1
Henrik Stenson 40/1
Daniel Berger 50/1
Thomas Pieters 50/1
Charley Hoffman 55/1
Matt Kuchar 60/1
Branden Grace 60/1
Phil Mickelson 60/1
Alexander Noren 60/1
Zach Johnson 66/1
Tommy Fleetwood 66/1
Marc Leishman 60/1. 

NOTE: For all the latest odds go to www.oddschecker.com/golf/uspga-championship/winner

Neville Leck

Need more on this, contact neville@golfweather.com.

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