Lawrence Donegan: Everything in Rory McIlroy’s favour for fifth Major win

Our ever-knowledgeable golf writer feels the course at Bellerive Country Club is almost completely set up with Rory McIlroy in mind…

Comments

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain, but in St Louis it only has eyes for the Bellrevie Country Club, site of many of torrential downpour in recent months and venue for the 100th edition of the US PGA Championship.

The upshot is a golf course that has been revealed to the wider world amid underwhelming reviews.

Even the PGA of America, the tournament hosts, got its excuses in early by warning the players about conditions and taking the unusual step of announcing the greens would not be at tournament speed during the practice days.

The aim was to protect the already fragile surfaces. Meanwhile, the players will just have to take a guess at how hard to hit their putts when play begins in earnest on Thursday.

PaddyPower.com is playing ten places on the USPGA

In the old days, before media training for professional athletes was invented, players would have been queueing up to complain about this. These days, all the grumbling is done away from the microphones.

Famously, Jack Nicklaus used to relish the sound of opponents complaining on the eve of a Major championship.

“When they said, ‘I don’t like the course’, I checked him off. Oh, the fairways are too narrow? Check him off. The fairways are too sloppy? Check him off. The greens are too fast? Check him,” the great man said, pointing out that half of the field could usually be relied upon to talk themselves out of contention before a ball was struck.

Some things never change and so the Nicklaus rule applies this week, which by my calculation leaves us with 78 contenders. The problem comes in identifying which 78?

Bellerive Country Club was never an inspiring choice to host of a Major championship. It is an old-school American golf course – tree-lined, verdant and boring –  the kind of place that is unlikely to live long in anyone’s memory except that, like the accidental tourist stumbling into a nightclub when he was trying to find the bus station and it could yet produce a barnstormer of  a major championship.

For this we can thank the blessed weather, which might have stunted the greens, but which has also produced a golf course that can colloquially be described as a bomber’s paradise.

Already long at 7,600 yards, the lay-out will play much longer, thanks to the rain.

Soft fairways and soft greens mean it’s a not a driver you need off the tee, it’s a howitzer. “The ball isn’t going very far after it lands,’’ confirmed US Open champion Brooks Koepka, who wasn’t complaining and nor should he be.

He’s a muscle-bound adonis who drives the ball over the horizon and beyond. The fairways will be wider in reality by virtue of their softness, which will stop some balls rolling on into the rough. Even then, a player like Koepka will bet on himself to muscle an approach shot from a cabbage patch close to the green.

No wonder the big American is strongly fancied by many this week. I’d make him a stonewall favourite myself, but for the fact that he isn’t the only bomber in town.

The field is laced with them, two of whom are in prime form. Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas have won the last two PGA Tour events with style. The PGA Championship has a history of producing first-time major winners like Thomas, which will surely give heart to a player like Jon Rahm.

Tony Finau, one of the longest hitters in the game and someone who contended for a while at Carnoustie last month, is another who appears to be building towards a Major championship win.

Tommy Fleetwood and Bryson DeChambeau can’t quite match the likes of Finau in distance off the tee, but they too carry the whiff of potential Major champions. At the very least they are the pick of those players who rely as much on finesse as they do on power.

It would came as a surprise to no-one if either of those were able to cling on to the power merchants for 54 holes before pushing on to a famous victory come Sunday afternoon. Neither the Englishman nor the American would be unworthy winners, but if they are to scale the heights they will have to beat one man to get there.

Much has been written in recent months about Rory McIlroy’s ‘desire’ and not all of it has been complimentary, with the suggestion being that the Irishman’s appetite has diminished as his bank balance has grown.

He has pushed back hard, as you would expect, with pride and no little amount of agitation.

A second-place finish at Carnoustie last month went some way to shutting down the critics, but McIlroy knows better than anyone his legacy will not be measured in second-place finishes.

He needs a fifth major victory, the sooner the better, in which case his luck is in this week.

The truth is Bellerive might have been designed and built with the Irishman in mind. It demands long and straight off the tee (check); it favours a player who hits the ball high (check, check) and it rewards the player with a right-to-left ball flight (check, check, check).

Even the flawed greens play into his favour. If the good putters struggle to putt on the bumpy surfaces, then McIlroy’s relative weakness with the putter will surely be mitigated.

He will hole his share, as he always does, while the better putters, might not hole theirs.

“I just haven’t won as much as I would have liked, but there’s still plenty of time to change that,” McIlroy said on Tuesday when asked to rate this 2018 season so far.

He has a chance to change that starting on Thursday. Truth is, he hasn’t had a better chance for years.

Find the fairway every time with PaddyPower.com

What do you think?