Lawrence Donegan: McIlroy can bomb his way past Spieth to a third US PGA Championship

Our golf expert explains why he fancies Rory to wrestle back golf’s golden boy tag at Quail Hollow...

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To paraphrase the great Michael Caine, not a lot people know the US PGA Championship was once a matchplay event.

A much under-rated format in which competitors play each other over 18 holes with the winner advancing to the next round, and so on, until there is only one man left standing.

The last man standing in 1957 was a fellow by the name of Lionel Herbert. Good for Lionel, bad for the PGA of America, which lost a boatload of money that year and promptly changed the format to a 72-hole strokeplay event.

Sixty years later, the great caravan of professional golf has parked on the grounds of Quail Hollow, a lush, tree-lined layout in North Carolina which will host this week’s PGA Championship, the fourth and final major of the golf season.

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I suspect I’m not alone in wishing that for this year only the PGA of America had gone back to the old format, that we could dispense with the preliminaries and go straight to a final between Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy.

Sure, there are plenty of potential winners in a field that is – as always – the strongest of all four majors, but when all is said and done there are only two compelling storylines.

In one, Spieth seeks to become the youngest ever winner of the career Grand Slam.

Victory on Sunday will see him surpass Tiger Woods’ record of winning all four majors at the age of 24 and seven months.

In the post-Tiger era, nobody competes like Spieth, as his record attests. Yet that very same record also hints Quail Hollow might not be fertile territory for his history-making ambitions. It is no accident his performances in the regular PGA Tour event at this venue have been mediocre.

The course is tight and tree-lined, with soft fairways that place a premier on power. To use the vernacular – it has been a bomber’s paradise through the years and it will be a bomber’s paradise this week. The weather forecast is for thunderstorms and plugged balls.

The young American has picked up a few yards in length, but he remains a few sticks of dynamite short of being explosive. He does, of course, putt like God. But again Quail Hollow blunts his particular advantage, the greens are so pure even Beelzebub in a blindfold would fancy his chances of holing his share of 20-footers.

So far, so unpromising. Yet no-one embraces the twin challenges of history and scepticism like Spieth. Nothing would please him more than to conquer both.

The other star of this two-handed play, McIlroy, will approach this week with similar intent, seeking to bury the doubters beneath the rubble of their perceived wisdom. Yet he will meet the challenge from the opposite direction, blessed with advantages that Quail Hollow denies his American rival.

The Irishman is the quintessential modern “bomber”, long and straight with the driver in ways that Spieth can only imagine.

No run in the soggy fairways? No problem.

Rory will take the aerial route to victory, that’s the theory at least. In practise, it has now been three years since he won the last of his four major championships, an unimaginable stretch when viewed in the immediate aftermath of his PGA Championship victory at Valhalla in the late summer of 2014.

Back then, he was shaping up to be an historical figure, one of those legends who picks up at least one major championship a season, two if the mood takes him.

Perhaps he is that legend-in-waiting. If so, then it is time for McIlroy climb into the superhero costume and get back to business, even Spieth thinks so.

“Rory is definitely the man beat,’’ the American said when asked for his thoughts on this week, noting the Irishman’s two previous PGA Tour wins at this week’s venue.

No doubt there is a bit of mischief in that assessment, all the better to put a bit more pressure on the Irishman. But the fact is Spieth has never been more right in his life, Rory is the man to beat this week.

Many will believe they can do exactly that – Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama and Rickie Fowler, to name three obvious candidates.

Less obviously, there is the massed ranks of the “good, but not truly great” PGA Tour players, a brethren that has on occasion thrown up a surprise, a figure who shows form only previously hinted at and goes on to win the PGA Championship.

Jimmy Walker did it last year. So why not, say, Charlie Hoffman this year?

The languid Californian is in the form of his life in a season which has seen him grab more screen time on Sundays than a TV evangelist. He has become a top five machine on the PGA Tour, a consistent threat on a near weekly basis.

Like many, I fancy Charlie’s chances this week. But frankly, I fancy McIlroy’s chances more. Expect the Irishman’s drought to end beneath the storm clouds of North Carolina.

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What do you think?