Matt Cooper takes a look at the second major of the year, the PGA Championship at Southern Hills.
There has been a very disjointed feel to the golf season since Scottie Scheffler emerged from the ordeal of the Butler Cabin natter with Jim Nantz wearing a Green Jacket.
The traditional after-party at Harbour Town was fine, but then nothing on the PGA Tour schedule attracted the attention of significant numbers of the world’s finest. The Zurich Classic pairs event was followed by a venture south of the border for the Mexico Open, then the Wells Fargo Championship’s one-off change of venue prompted a mass swerve before last week’s AT&T Byron Nelson changed the pace a little, moving up into third gear.
For the world’s elite the recuperation over the last month was needed, to rest the mind ahead of what will be a full-on period until the end of August and it all starts with what promises to be a fine renewal of the PGA Championship at the renovated Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The course became infamous in 2001 when Mark Brooks three-putted the 72nd green in setting the clubhouse target, moments later Stewart Cink’s three-putt stopped him equalling it, and then Retief Goosen’s three-putt did match it. The South African won the next day and the 18th green? That was swiftly rebuilt.
More recently, the previously thickly tree-lined fairways have been thinned out and reports from the golfers who have played the course suggest that the key this week will be double-edged: first, find the small greens as often as possible with the regulation shots, but then have a sharp short game for the recovery shots that will inevitably result at some stage throughout the four rounds.
Each Way – Jordan Spieth at +1800
Among those players who ventured to Oklahoma for a recce was the career grand slam-seeking Jordan Spieth and what he had to say makes persuasive reading. It’s nice enough that he cooed: “I thought the golf course was fantastic. I loved it.” But when he dug deeper there were solid reasons to feel he ought to like the test. “There’s a lot more run-offs than I remember into Bermuda chipping areas that are mowed,” he said. “So you can be left with a lot of really delicate little shots.”
Spieth likes it when a course demands creativity from his short game and the combination of bent grass greens with Bermuda grass fairways and rough is the one he has enjoyed at Colonial. In fact, he also said that the greens at Southern Hills reminds him of the home of the Charles Schwab Challenge, a spot where he’s won and been runner-up three times. Another similarity between the two courses? Perry Maxwell designed both of them.
Last two starts for @JordanSpieth: 🏆-2nd
He heads to the PGA Championship in search of the Career Grand Slam. pic.twitter.com/iA0f72CJco
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 16, 2022
The clincher with Spieth is his form. He left Augusta National feeling wretched after missing the cut. “I hated it,” he said. “It was the worst feeling as a golfer that I can remember.” It certainly lit a fuse, however. He won the following week in The Heritage and was second last week in the AT&T Byron Nelson.
Each Way – Shane Lowry at +2500
I like Hideki Matsuyama’s chances this week, but so does the compiler. He’s wary enough of Irishman Shane Lowry as well, but there’s more fruit on this tree so we’ll side with the Irishman not least because he’s done us proud in recent majors. We selected him for the Open in 2019, in-play during this event last year and then again in the Masters – and the reasons behind all three contribute to the repeat pick.
At Royal Portrush three years ago I was persuaded not only by the location, but also by the demands of the course. Good approach work was called for and, when they were missed, the capacity to play recoveries from the bottom of run-offs was essential. As we’ve established, it’s a similar examination this week.
And when I put him up more recently it was off the back of a belief that he’s relishing the majors at the moment, happy with his ability to bring his best and take on the world. He was singing from the same hymn sheet after finishing third at the Masters so I’m keeping the chips on the table.
Each Way – Mackenzie Hughes at +35000
The shortlist for the third pick was long. In major championships I like players who have poked their noses up the leaderboard in the other majors, a reason for picking Corey Conners in the Masters. He was excellent there but has he the short game for this test? Matthew Wolff and Charl Schwartzel have also played recent majors well, but they miss out too.
I like the form of Keegan Bradley, especially his rediscovered confidence in his putting, and I wonder if Brooks Koepka’s major brilliance has been overlooked (again). Can Colonial winners Daniel Berger or Jason Kokrak shine? Might Billy Horschel finally contend again in a major (he’s a WGC winner, the World No. 14 and his only major top five was on a Maxwell course)?
But the final pick goes to Conners’ compatriot Mackenzie Hughes. His major form? He tied the 54-hole lead at the US Open last year before falling back into T15th; a month later he landed tied sixth in the Open at Royal St. George’s. Two starts ago he recorded a top 10 in the Wells Fargo Championship and he’s got excellent short game stats this season (39th Around the Greens, 1st for Scrambling from the Fringe, 16th for Scrambling from the Rough). He was also tied eighth at Colonial in 2019 (when second with 18 holes to play). He’s a definite long-shot, all right, but one with some sneaky good stuff attached.