On the eve of the 2021 PGA Championship, with the memory of Rory McIlroy’s return to the PGA Tour winner’s circle at Quail Hollow a couple of weeks ago still fresh, it is tempting to ask if the fuss and expense are really worth it. Why bother staging a Major championship if we already know who is going to win?
The conclusion, it is forgone. Twists and turns, there will be none. As for drama – leave it to Conor McPherson. The four days of major championship golf that lie ahead are as predictable as a rom-com starring Kate Hudson. Kate gets the guy, naturally. And Rory gets the trophy – the Wanamaker Trophy.
What else are we supposed to argue given the weight of evidence in support of a McIlroy triumph, both past and recent.
The history in this preordained narrative stretches all the way back to 2012, when the Irishman won the PGA Championship on the same golf course by eight shots, a margin that if anything didn’t fully capture the extent of his dominance. It was a performance reminiscent of Tiger at his best, on a track that Pete Dye had apparently laid out with McIlroy at the forefront of his mind.
Kiawah Island was long and brutish back then, with the kind of the hazards and forced carries that favoured a player who could hit it a mile and yet control shot trajectory and shape. It’s been remodelled since then but its essential nature hasn’t altered. It remains ideal for a player like McIlroy – a premium ball-striker with a nifty short game and the confidence of Brad Pitt signing up for a Tinder account.
For a year or so, the Irishman looked a little lost but that impressive win at Quail Hollow earlier in the month put the self-doubts, and the doubters, to bed. Rory declared himself back and, who knows, perhaps better than ever before. The renowned swing coach Pete Cowen had signed on to Team McIlroy less than a month before and here was a result to prove the extent of his transformative genius.
Cowen, an ostensibly modest soul, wasn’t interested in claiming credit but there was a queue around the block of people who stepped in and did it for him. If he only needed a few weeks to end McIlroy’s long winless run, then imagine what he might do with more time to work on his talented pupil. Well, this week’s PGA Championship means we won’t have to imagine for much longer.
At this stage, it is probably best to introduce a little caution. McIlroy is a deservedly favourite but let us remember (not that the PGA of America would ever let us forget) that the PGA Championship boasts the strongest Major championship field of this or any other year. The best players in the world are here and they’re not here for the specific purpose of admiring the brilliance of McIlroy.
The Irishman is not the only world-class player rounding into decent form. Nor is he the only player who is likely to find himself comfortable on this stretch of the Carolinas coast.
No-one is in better form right now that Jordan Spieth, for whom victory this week would complete a career Grand Slam. Like McIlroy, the popular Texan ended a long winless streak in recent weeks and now brims with confidence. He will fancy his chances, and so will many others. It always blows at Kiawah Island so don’t be surprised to see players who perform well in traditional Open Championship conditions make a decent showing here, the likes of Dustin Johnston or, for those willing to take a walk on the wild side and throw a few coins at a rank outsider, even Rickie Fowler.
The Yankee challenge will be supplemented by the usual suspects, the likes of Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffle and Patrick Reed (boo!). The defending champion Collin Morikawa seldom has a bad week so it would be surprising if he wasn’t in and around the top 10. But if there is one American who stands out above the rest, it is the criminally underrated Daniel Berger, who has won twice on the PGA Tour recently and enjoyed a decent finish in Texas last weekend.
On the European side, there’s a lot of chatter around Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrell Hatton and Matt Wallace. All are good ball-strikers and flight the ball better than the average PGA Tour drone. They should thrive in the predicted weather conditions and a stellar week on greens might see them home.
Likewise, Shane Lowry or even Lee Westwood.
In other words, there are more than a few in with a chance. Good luck to them all and those who will back them with hard cash. But they know – just as the dogs in the street know – that if you are going to win the 2021 PGA Championship then you are going to have to beat one man. The name is McIlroy. Rory McIlroy.
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