Drivers are you ready? No, it’s not the Indianapolis 500, but a high-octane power struggle of a different kind, some 250 miles west of the famous annual IndyCar classic as golf’s elite descend on Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, Missouri, for the 100th PGA Championship.
Glory’s last shot was how the PGA of America used to bill their Major championship, the final hurrah of the year, but that will be redundant after this week’s edition, when the PGA will from 2019 be staged in May.
So, what better way to bow out from its traditional late summer slot in the calendar than with a good old-fashioned shootout at Bellerive for the first time since 1992, this championship is going big.
A 7,317-yard par-70 that counts Gary Player (1965 US Open) and Nick Price (1992 PGA Championship) as its previous major winners, Bellerive is a course remodeled by Rees Jones from his father Robert Trent Jones Sr’s original 1960 design to act as a grand stage and this year’s final major is definitely that.
After an exciting Open Championship at Carnoustie where opinion was split as to whether to use driver at all on the canniest of links courses, this month’s major will feature a parkland monster with massive greens and huge bunkers befitting its Midwestern setting.
That is not to say it is a bomber’s alley. Those remodelled greens, for example, now feature greens within greens with ridges and hollows added to test putting skills a la Augusta National. Meanwhile, the bunkers and chipping areas that protect them will demand an excellent short game.
“Bellerive requires shot makers,” said Rees Jones, who is also preparing New York’s Bethpage Black for next May’s 101st PGA Championship.
“It is a true, solid, good test of golf for the best players in the world,” declared Kerry Haigh, the Chief Championships Officer of the PGA of America.
Of course, those best players in the world are still going to have to drive it long and accurately, but there were no complaints about that from defending champion Justin Thomas.
Last year’s conqueror of Quail Hollow liked what he saw when he paid Bellerive a visit in June.
“It’s a great course. Driving is going to be premium,” Thomas said.
“The holes have great shape to them. A lot of them kind of go out and then dogleg and … if you’re going to want to challenge it, to go farther up (the fairway), you’re going to really need to be precise.
“Coming into greens this severe and with this many tiers and slopes, shorter putts are going to be a big advantage. It’s definitely going to be a lot of practice on the drivers and 3-woods.”
Of course, Thomas has given himself the perfect boost heading into his first major title defence thanks to his dominant win at Firestone Country Club last Sunday in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. He will be among a select group whose all-around game fits into the requirements for success this weekend, where distance off the tee must be matched by great ball-striking, excellent course management and putting.
The great leveller will be that very few have played Bellerive competitively ahead of this week, the last tournament to be staged there coming in 2008 when Camillo Villegas won the BMW Championship at 15-under on a much softer course and more receptive greens played in the wake of Hurricane Gustav than will be seen this time around.
Bellerive has proven a significant place to win in the past.
When Player won the 1965 US Open it completed the final leg of his career Grand Slam while 27 years later Price won the first of his three major championships.
With a field including so many in-form Americans such as Thomas, world number one Dustin Johnson, back-to-back US Open champion Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler and the effortlessly long Tony Finau, not to mention a Grand Slam-chasing Jordan Spieth AND a resurgent Tiger Woods there is certainly the talent to tick all the boxes required and with a great finishing sequence of holes from 14 in, there is sure to be plenty of drama.
But what about the Europeans? This week’s course is, after all, named in honour of Louis St. Ange de Bellerive, the last French governor in North America.
Could another foreign invader be primed to stake claim to a prized American possession this week in St Louis?
Here are four who could…
Rory McIlroy – 11/1
The question is, do you gloss over a poor final round at Firestone Country Club last Sunday when the Irishman sprayed the ball off the tee and instead focus on the two-time PGA Champion’s consistent improvement to that point, including a tie for second at The Open?
Tommy Fleetwood – 22/1
With the jury out on fellow Englishman Justin Rose’s back problems after he skipped last week’s Bridgestone, Fleetwood has been the in-form Brit since his tie for 12th at Carnoustie added to a T17 at the Masters and US Open runner-up finish. Sixth at the Canadian Open and T14 last Sunday in Ohio, the world No. 11 is 10th in the strokes gained: tee to green rankings on the PGA Tour.
Jon Rahm – 22/1
If Francesco Molinari had the nous to negotiate Carnoustie, fellow Euro Rahm has the power and grace to overcome Bellerive. Okay he missed the cuts at both the US Open and Open but his T4 at the Masters may be a more comparable guide this week and like Fleetwood is prominent in the PGA Tour strokes gained: tee to green ladder at 11th.
Thorbjorn Olesen – 66/1
Tied for third at last weekend’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, the Dane has been powering up the Race To Dubai rankings this season, particularly since landing the Italian Open title in early June. T6, T12, T3 in his last three starts.
And an under the radar American….
Webb Simpson – 45/1
While all the form horses have vied at the top of the world rankings, Simpson has steadily been climbing into their stratosphere thanks to his Players Championship victory at TPC Sawgrass in May. T10 at the US Open in June and T12 last month at Carnoustie, the 2011 US Open champion is coming back into some serious major form.
* All odds correct at time of posting.