The USPGA Championship used to be known as Glory’s Last Shot but the final major of the season has been rebranded to now be called a chance to join the golfing greats. Sergio Garcia won’t be concerned if the championship is the least prestigious of the four most important prizes in golf if he finally wins one. This could be the week when El Nino becomes a man in the context of major championship golf.
Jason Dufner, Justin Rose and Charl Schwartzel have each won one major but must win one of the four great championships again to prove they are not one hit wonders. Each player has a decent profile for a tournament that is not being played in August for the first time since 1971. The host venue is the Lower Course at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, New Jersey where the 2005 event took place.
This year’s PGA Championship is being played in July to accommodate golf at the Olympic Games in Rio. However, golf has never been and never will be an Olympic sport but who cares about the ethos behind the Games when any Russian athlete is allowed to take part. Professional tennis players seem to have bought into the Olympic ideals but golfers are fundamentally selfish. Winning a Claret Jug or Green Jacket is much more important to most than winning a gold medal. Several players have expressed concerns about the Zika virus but that is a red herring because fundamentally the benefits of ‘flying down to Rio’ are not that attractive.
Baltusrol usually serves up hot and steamy weather and that was the case when Phil Mickelson won his only PGA title there 11 years ago. He won with a total of four under which equated to 276 strokes on the par 70 layout. Mickelson led from wire to wire and could afford a pair of two over par rounds of 72 over the weekend and still win by one shot from Steve Elkington and Thomas Bjorn.
The Lower Course must be unique for a championship venue in that the last two holes are par 5s but by no way easy birdie opportunities. The course has staged eight major championships but there has only ever been one eagle at the 649 yards 17th hole in its last two spins as a major venue. The last hole is more manageable at 554 yards in length that and is the conclusion to a test that is 36 yards longer than in 2005.
The air will be heavy so the ball will stay higher than normal for longer and that could bring the difficult rough into play. There will be a premium on accuracy over distance but bogey avoidance on the shorter holes will also be key to good scoring. Mickelson was fifth from last for driving distance in 2005 and 37th for fairways hit. Scrambling is a major strength of his game but mental letdown from almost winning a second Open championship just two weeks ago could be a handicap.
Garcia is scheduled to represent Spain in the Olympics and it would be fitting if his loyalty to the sport and country of his birth was rewarded by him teeing it up in Brazil as a major champion. He is the shortest priced player in the betting to have not won a major. All four majors are currently held by a player who has only won one and the leading contender to maintain that trend is Garcia. He has had his chances but a weak putting stroke and mental fragility have affected his chances several times in the past.
Garcia won on the PGA Tour in May and since then has recorded two top five finishes in a row and that run has been in majors. His game is in fine shape and he is currently 18th for total driving, third for greens hit and sixth for adjusted scoring. Sergio deserves to win a major and he could finally have his day in the sun when a major drops in his lap rather than him grasping one or wasting a winning opportunity. Henrik Stenson is now 40 and Garcia is four years younger so age is not a barrier.
Dufner, Rose and Schwartzel are all built for Baltusrol and are proven major champions. The PGA Championship does not always go to form and the seven players at the head of the betting have won majors. However, this year’s renewal could finally see that elusive first major for Garcia.