Those wonderful late summer traditions; Little League World Series, U.S. Open Tennis, Baseball’s pennant races, and yes, of course, The PGA Championship. Golf’s final Major Championship of the 2018 season will play its 100th edition this week at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, Missouri. It will be the last time The PGA is a part of these late summer sports rituals as the championship moves to the month of May on the 2019 golf schedule. So enjoy watching the best golfers in the world grind, sweat, and plod along in the sweltering August heat, competing for The Wanamaker Trophy, one more time.
The heat is indeed a big part of this week’s story. The St. Louis area experienced some record temperatures back in the month of May and that has put a great deal of stress on the greens at Bellerive. Current temperatures in the 90’s along with high humidity have led to areas of the putting surfaces becoming patchy, bumpy, and without uniform turf coverage. Players are not complaining, have remained positive, and feel that the conditions are fine. The areas of concern around the greens are primarily along the edges and not affecting the middle portions or largest areas of the putting surfaces. And large surfaces they are – the greens at Bellerive are some of the biggest one will ever see. On average, they are two and a half times bigger than the greens at Pebble Beach. This will bring possible three putting into play and will also place an emphasis on getting the ball close to the hole on approach.
The weather has given the players, the greens, and the grounds crew a bit of a reprieve in the past couple of days in the way of thunder showers. Temperatures have cooled off into the low 80’s and it has really softened up the golf course. The forecast calls for sunshine going forward, temperatures in the low 90’s and no wind to speak of. This ought to translate into low scores to open up the championship with players firing at the pins on the soft, receptive greens.
Bellerive is a Robert Trent Jones design and was built in 1960, the same year Trent Jones did a massive redesign of last week’s venue, Firestone Country Club. Like Firestone, Bellerive is also a very long, tree-lined, Par 70, golf course. The greens are much bigger, as noted, more water comes into play, and the fairways will feature more doglegs than the very straightforward Firestone Country Club. The doglegs favor a right to left ball flight as only two holes move in the opposite direction. The greenside bunkers are cavernous. With the combination of big, deep bunkers and huge greens, one may find themselves in a greenside bunker, with a shot of 50-some odd yards to the flagstick.
Total Driving – which is a combination of length and accuracy – hitting greens in regulation, and putting ought to prove to be fundamental necessities for success this week. As far as what history tells us about who will win this week, ten of the last eleven PGA Championship winners have finished in the Top 22 at The WGC-Bridgestone at Firestone the week before. Four of the last six winners have come from the final two pairings the week prior at Firestone. This year, that was Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, and Ian Poulter. Seven of the last ten winners have been ranked 25th in the world or better. Sixteen of the last nineteen winners have had a win earlier in this same season and nine of the last ten PGA Champions have recorded a Top 20 finish in at least one of their last two starts.
Dustin Johnson (9-1) The number one player in the world has three wins this season, two 2nd place finishes and two 3rd’s. He’s that good. For the past two months, his results read 8th-1st-3rd-CUT-1st-3rd. Even 9-to-1 doesn’t seem like that bad of a number given DJ’s current form and on a course that should suit his game very well.
Justin Thomas (14-1) Your defending champion and is coming off of a win last week at The WGC-Bridgestone. He’s ranked 2nd in the world behind Johnson and also has three wins this season. Thomas ranks 3rd on Tour in Strokes Gained: Approach and is 5th in Putting Average.
Jason Day (18-1) J-Day is a PGA Championship specialist, having tallied five Top 10 finishes in eight visits to this Major, including a win in 2015. This week’s soft conditions ought to help him keep his tee ball in the fairway. His last three starts have gone 12th-17th-10th. Day is 22nd in Total Driving and 1st in Strokes Gained: Putting. One of his two wins this season came at The Wells Fargo Championship, played at Quail Hollow, the site of last season’s PGA Championship.
Justin Rose (20-1) Rosey withdrew from The Bridgestone last week before hitting a single shot due to back spasms. It seems that this was more of a precautionary move leading up to the season’s final Major. He similarly dealt with some back issues in 2016 before going on to win the Gold Medal in Rio. Rose has competed in fifteen PGA Championships, recording three Top 10 finishes and six missed cuts.
Tommy Fleetwood (25-1) Quickly ascending into one of the top golfers in the world, Tommy Fleetwood currently ranks 11th. His performance in Majors has been excellent in a very short time with two Top 20 finishes and two Top 5’s. He is 3rd on Tour in Total Driving and finished 14th last week at Firestone.
Tony Finau (30-1) With Top 10 finishes in each of the season’s first three Majors and another 10th place finish last week at Firestone, Finau quickly became the darling of many bettors for The PGA. Opening at 50-to-1, his odds are now as low as 15-to-1 in some stores. No doubt, he ought to do well again but this has now officially become the play this week that it seems EVERYONE is on.
The Long Shots
Ian Poulter (80-1) Poulter checks the box of being in one of the final two pairings on the Sunday prior at Firestone, where four of the last six PGA winners have also been. He also has a win earlier this season. He’s 12th and 10th in his last two starts, took 11th at The Players Championship, ranks 31st in the world currently and 22nd in the European Ryder Cup Team standings. He’s 38th on Tour in Total Driving.
Thomas Pieters (100-1) Many were introduced to Thomas Pieters as a world class golfer at the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine Golf Club in Minnesota. As a rookie, he went 4-1-and-0 in his matches. Like Bellerive, Hazeltine is a Robert Trent Jones design. Pieters is a big hitter from Belgium but went to school at University of Illinois, so the Midwest heat and conditions at nearby St. Louis should be nothing new. In 2017, Pieters took 4th at The WGC-Bridgestone.
Aaron Wise (100-1) The 22-year old Oregon Duck finished 6th this year at The Bridgestone and captured his first Tour victory back in May of this year at The Byron Nelson. Wise was 2nd to Jason Day earlier this year at Quail Hollow. He’s 12th on Tour in Total Driving and 19th in Putting Average.
Rory McIlroy (12-1) If Jason Day is a PGA Championship specialist, I believe Rory is that as well as a Jones Design specialist. McIlroy has two PGA Championship victories to his credit. He’s also hoisted trophies at Firestone, Congressional, and East Lake – all of which have experienced extensive redesign work by Robert Trent Jones or his son Rees Jones, or both. Like Thomas Pieters, Rory too was a star for the European side at the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine – again, a Trent Jones design. Hazeltine was also host to the 2009 PGA Championship where Rory finished 3rd. Bellerive is of course a Robert Trent Jones design and yes, Rees Jones put his stamp on significant redesigns in 2007 and 2011.
McIlroy finished 2nd last month at Carnoustie and this was truly not in Rory’s wheelhouse as far as the course and the conditions demanding a real grind. Rory’s victories have usually come much differently – in the way of blowouts – when he can score in bunches and run away from the field – using his driving ability and deft scrambling touch to pour in birdies. Given the soft conditions, ripe for scoring, and the way Rory loves a PGA Championship set up – especially those designed by a “Jones,” I believe he adds Wanamaker number three to his trophy case this week.
For all of Brady Kannon’s PGA Championship plays, click HERE