Sports

Golfing compass firmly fixed on Southern Hills as PGA Championship begins


Time to get down to business and let the art of striking a golf ball with a golf club take over. For all of the distractions in the lead up to this 104th USPGA at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklamhoma, with Phil Mickelson’s absence from a defence of his trophy and the refusal of the Saudi-backed LIV start-up tour to go away, there has come the time for the championship itself to take centre-stage.

Finally it’s about the actual golf. And, as the PGA of America tend to do in concocting groups to add spice, the grouping of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth for the first two rounds has generated some box office razzmatazz to kickstart the quest for the Wanamaker Trophy.

As Scottie Scheffler, the world number one and fresh off a maiden Major title after claiming the Masters last month, self-deprecatingly observed when asked if his new status had led to any greater reverence, “Tiger’s here, so nobody really remembers that I’m here, so it’s all good”.

Certainly, Woods’ presence in the field – playing for the first time since reappearing at the Masters – is ying for the yang of Mickelson’s absence. The question remains, though, will Woods’ body be able for the demands over four days of playing such a tough course?

As Olympic gold medallist Xander Schauffele said of the examination posed by a course substantially changed since it last stage the US PGA in 2007 (when Woods won), “it’s tough, it’s going to be really hard”.

“I think the PGA Championship for the most part, people feel like you can shoot lower in them than most Majors. But I think this year is going to be a different story.”

Renovations

The course was subjected to major renovations carried out by Gil Hanse which have resulted in different playing characteristics, especially how approach shots to the small greens run off into the greenside Bermuda grass rough. That is something which will ensure players’ creativity and soft hands in scrambling will be showcased.

Dustin Johnson concurred: “To win a Major, especially a PGA Championship, everything in your game has to be working well. You can’t just drive it well, especially on a golf course like this. You’ve to play a lot of mid to long irons. You get a few wedges, and there’s some short holes where you can make birdies. But you still have to be firing on all cylinders.”

In the case of Woods, the physical demands of playing at Augusta National told as the Masters tournament progressed.

“My team did just an amazing job just to get me to a point where I could play the Masters and I was able to have that opportunity to play. Right after each round it was like getting back to the house and we have an ice bath ready for you, and off you go, get on the treatment table and let’s keep working at it, keep things going and it was tough. It was hard. It was hard on all of us.

“But I’ve gotten stronger since then. It’s still going to be sore and walking is a challenge. I can hit golf balls, but the challenge is walking. It’s going to be that way for the foreseeable future for sure,” admitted Woods who nevertheless insisted he could contend and even win. “I feel like I can, definitely. I just have to go out there and do it.”

Woods still has the X-factor but the likelihood is that the other two members of the group are more likely to stay the distance.

McIlroy is in buoyant mood on the back of a closing 64 at the Masters, where he finished runner-up to Scheffler, as he goes hunting a first Major in eight years to extend his career total from four to five.

Spieth, like McIlroy was a month ago, plays with the spotlight of potentially adding his name to the elite club of career Grand Slam winners. Spieth is missing only the Wanamaker Trophy from his trophy cabinet, and his quest this time around is aided by the fact he grew up playing on the same type of Bermuda grass rough and run-offs that are in play this week.

Positive

“I really enjoy playing this golf course, and I like where I’m coming in with where my game is at. It’s all about settling into the tournament,” said Spieth, who admitted the grouping was something that excited him.

“They’re both great to play with. They’re quick. They’re positive. I think you’ve got to embrace it and have fun… I know it’s obviously great for golf [to have Woods back playing], but selfishly it’s pretty exciting to be able to play these events with the guy that you’ve idolised (growing up].”

McIlroy – one of four Irish players in the field, along with Shane Lowry, Séamus Power and Pádraig Harrington – coming in on the back of successive runners-up finishes on the Champions Tour . He has seen the work done on some technical points in his swing (“flighting it down a little bit, getting comfortable taking a club more and hitting it easy,” he explained) reflected in improved statistical data.

But the real numbers that matter are in signing for the lowest scores over the four rounds. McIlroy has identified the need to keep high numbers off his scorecard if he is indeed to lift another Major. His form, like that of Lowry, would suggest that a month on from the Masters where the two Irishmen filled second and third behind Scheffler, there will again be a strong challenge…with Scheffler again the man to beat!



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