Open Champion Henrik Stenson does not need your sympathy but consider this. The Swede’s time as the ‘last man to win a Major” is cruelly short and will end this coming Sunday, when the winner of the 2016 PGA Championship is crowned at Baltusrol Country Club near New York. Unless, of course, he wins this week, too. Which is more than possible. But more of that later.
First, we have to deal with the curious case of the missing Big Three. Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy. Remember them? In which case you will also remember the rash of stories suggesting the rest of the field needn’t bother turning up the 2016 majors, that they would all amount to a three-man play-off over 72 holes.
So far in the Major championships the Big Three stand a big zero for three. Spieth, infamously, came the closest, leading the Masters all the way to the 12th hole on Sunday until he inexplicably started playing like a 14 handicapper.
Subsequent performances at the US Open and the Open Championship were studies in mid-table mediocrity. The Stoke City of professional golf. There is no shame in that but after last year’s historic efforts – the Barcelona of professional golf – it has all been a bit of comedown.
The last we heard of Spieth he was complaining about the negativity surrounding his game.
Spieth should be – and often is – congratulated for saying exactly what is on his mind and should afford the same courtesy to those who do the same. Alternatively, he could shut them up by playing the kind of golf he played last summer. Baltusrol, which hosted this event back in 2005, when Phil Mickelson prevailed in a rain-delayed thriller, will give him a chance to do exactly that.
It is neither a memorable course or a truly taxing one. The fairways are tree-lined but not particularly narrow; the rough shouldn’t be too brutal (over the years the tournament organisers, PGA of America, have never shown much interest in defending par) and the greens will be just a touch over PGA Tour speeds. It promises to be a regulation challenge with a major championship title attached. Even if Spieth’s ball-striking remains in its mediocre rut he could still find Baltusrol forgiving enough to stay in contention.
Day, like Spieth, he has been whisper of a presence at the last two Majors. He has won three times this season and retains the No 1 world rankings so it’s daft to say he is on the wane. But in recent weeks it has been possible to detect his weariness, a sense that he would be quite happy to be at home playing with the kids.
McIlroy is another who has been looking fed up. It shouldn’t be too difficult for the Irishman to get up for a Major but if he needs inspiration he need look no further that the whispers that suggest he might never quite fulfill his prodigious talent. Young Rory (can we still call him young?) never plays as well as when he is out to makes fools of his critics. He has plenty these days.
If McIlroy plays his cussed best, he wins. But to do that he needs to putt well. If he can’t, then there are others who will step in. Stenson, of course, is one, although for all his heroics at Royal Troon one is still bound to ask – can he really putt that well again? Especially on greens running significantly quicker than those in Scotland.
Dustin Johnson will be carrying the hopes of many and with good cause. Is he currently the best in the world? Probably. He is driving the ball brilliantly and at long last seems to have discovered some confidence on the greens and was T2 in Canada at the weekend.
Indeed it is hard to muster a reasonable case against the odds of DJ prevailing except to ask – is he really a player who go down in the books as winning two Majors in a single season? That’s a tall order, especially for a golfer whose mental fragility over the years has been all too apparent. He shook off the demons at Oakmont, but it remains to be seen if they have gone forever.
That leaves us with another possibility, one that would be more in keeping the history of the PGA Championship as the least prestigious of the four majors. The last two winners – Day and McIlroy – have come from the top drawer but looking back the list of victors has been a hot-potch of the historic greats (Woods, Mickelson), the mid-range talents (Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner) and obscurities (Rich Beem, Shaun Micheel).
If the 2016 Majors and their winners (Danny Willett, Johnson and Stenson) are anything to go by, we could be looking at someone from just below the top tier; a player who, like the others, is looking to claim his first Major; a player whose talents and profile fits exactly with that of Baltusrol, a fine golf course but perhaps not one to get the hearts fluttering.
The PGA Tour is awash with such figures, from Bill Haas to Brandt Snedeker, from Billy Horschel to Justin Thomas.
Snedeker played well at Canadian Open at the weekend and will be fancied by many, me included, but if I had to pick one player who fits the profile outlined above I would settle on someone who has been around the upper echelons for a while now.
He has threatened but never quite delivered; he is good but perhaps not a great. He might not be quite ready to win a Masters or an Open, but he has what it takes to win a PGA Championship. That player is Patrick Reed .