The 2nd Golf major of the year is upon us this week with the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island golf resort hosting the USPGA Championship. The course, designed by the late Pete Dye and his wife Alice, winds its way naturally through windswept dunes along the coast of South Carolina. The Dyes adapted characteristics of famed links styled tracks of Scotland and Ireland resulting in a course that boasts the most seaside holes in North America.
The course was originally designed to host the 1991 Ryder Cup which infamously became known as the “war by the shore” after several American players turned up at the 1st tee wearing Desert Storm hats. Golf fans will remember the event coming down to the last putt of the match when Bernhard Langer needed to hole from 6 feet to tie and hence retain the cup for Europe. Sadly, for Europe he missed. But the whole Ryder Cup experience was severely tarnished by the unsporting actions of players and spectators alike.
The course also hosted the 2012 USPGA Championship which saw Rory McIlroy the runaway winner by eight shots for his 2nd major, following on from his US Open win in 2011. The 2012 Leaderboard makes very interesting reading. Of the top 10, seven players were from Europe and of the top 20, we can see a plethora of players who have shown outstanding form around British Open courses.
This year the course will be stretched to play at over 7,800 yards which, even by today’s standards, is extremely long. But this will only be 200 yards longer than in 2012. The Ocean Course has been designated the hardest course in the USA and, with it being one of the most wind affected courses in America, it was no surprise to see so many Europeans and good links players at the top of the 2021 Leaderboard. Interestingly, it also had plenty of short hitters in the top 20. In 2nd place was Englishman David Lynn who most certainly was not considered a power hitter. Other players that finished in the top 20 that year include Steve Stricker, Tim Clark and Bo Van Pelt, all considered very short but straight hitters in their time. Another useful guide in trying to find the winner will be by studying the form of the tough, windswept courses in Florida like the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Honda Classic and the Pete Dye famed Players Championship held at TPC Sawgrass. For these reasons I’m not of the belief that we will need to get trapped into looking for a power hitter, despite the length of the golf course, but instead someone who can keep the ball consistently in play off the tee and can find plenty of greens in regulation. Also, a great short game will be required, someone with a great amount of patience allied to playing well on courses designed by the late Pete Dye.
At the top of the betting market sits Rory McIIroy following his win last week at Quail Hollow in the Wells Fargo Championship. This being his 3rd win at the event, it was a welcome return to the winner’s enclosure for McIIroy who had cited that not playing in front of fans was why he hadn’t performed so well and that with crowds coming back his game was suitably lifted.
Fell in love with Quail Hollow the first time I played it and knew it was special. From my first win in 2010 to today, each year the fans, staff, city of Charlotte make the week an unforgettable experience. The fans carried me through today. Thank you for the continued support. pic.twitter.com/PZlk1ou5bB
— Rory McIlroy (@McIlroyRory) May 10, 2021
Having won here at the Ocean Course by 8 shots in 2012 PGA Championship, Rory will have plenty of support this week to claim a 5th major. However, I feel the value has probably gone now and that he will need another fantastic week on the greens as he did in the Wells Fargo. Next in the betting we have Rahm, Thomas, DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson and Spieth all bunched up around the 14/1 mark. Rahm’s form has been good without getting over the winning line and he worryingly missed the cut at the Wells Fargo two weeks ago. Dustin Johnson withdrew from the Texas event prior to this Championship citing a knee injury but has shown nothing since winning the Saudi International way back in February. Jordan Spieth played in Texas this week for the 1st time since the Masters in April and started well, leading after Round One. After this he backed off a bit but showed that his game is in good order. The enigmatic Spieth also has the added incentive of chasing an historic win which would give him the Grand Slam in Golf majors, something only five golfers in the history of the game have done. My main worry is that one or two bad swings from Speith round this extremely penal golf course could be his undoing. I couldn’t put anyone off backing either Thomas or Dechambeau. Both players have won this year in impressive style and seem to be holding their form, but I personally want a bigger price about my selections with a field as deep as this and will back the following three players all each way.
My first pick to win is 29-year-old Corey Connors from Canada. Connors has risen sharply to 37th in the world rankings following some stellar performances this year which include top 10s in both the US Masters and the Players Championship. 2nd only to Jon Rahm in top 10s on the PGA Tour this year, Connors sits 8th in Strokes gained tee to green, a vital stat for this week on a brutal golf course.
With one PGA Tour win to his name, winning at a windy Texas event, Connors took some time to find his feet again after winning that event in April 2019. His finish for 3rd in The Arnold Palmer Invitational this year was particularly impressive on a tough windy Floridan golf course finishing only behind Bryson DeChambeau and Lee Westwood. Tied for 4th at the Heritage the week after the US Masters and the 7th at the Players Championship shows his affinity to Pete Dye designs. His one weakness is his putting. However, that is showing signs of improvement and with the winning score here expected to be in single figures, this is the sort of test that Connors will excel in.
My second pick to win the Championship is Englishman Lee Westwood. I amazed to see Westwood priced at 100/1 for this event, having been a very popular pick for the US Masters this year. The 48-year-old seems to be having some sort of renaissance, having risen back up to 23rd in the world rankings and is the current holder of the European Tour Race to Dubai. Finishing 2nd to DeChambeau at the API in March and 2nd to Justin Thomas in the Players Championship, this highlighted how well Westwood has been playing of late, especially on the US tour. Missing the cut at the US Masters would have come as a minor setback for him. However, with the spotlight having moved away now, I’m expecting a big finish for the Englishman. Playing on tough, windy links type set ups is right up Lee’s street and he is nicely rested after the Masters. He played in Texas this week so that he could knock some rust off his game. After a sluggish start, Lee slowly worked his way up the leaderboard through the week which will have put him in good heart for this week’s tough test. This week could be a real test of patience, which could work to his advantage as he seeks his maiden major golf Championship, one that I think no one would begrudge him.
Finally, I’m going to stick to the European theme here of trying to find the winner and will go with Irishman Shane Lowry. The world number 47 is typically quite hard to get right when backing to win golf tournaments, however this looks like a great opportunity for Lowry to grab a 2nd major and further advertise his much-vaunted Ryder Cup debut later this year. Lowry has two top 10s on the PGA Tour this year, the 1st at the Players Championship and the 2nd at the Heritage, both courses, as earlier highlighted, designed by Pete Dye. Lowry typically can be inconsistent, but this year on the PGA Tour he’s only missed one cut in eight appearances and that was his 1st event over in the states.
If the wind blows here as would be expected, players will miss plenty of greens and, with one of the best short games on tour on tight lies, Shane will gain plenty of strokes on the field in that department. Lowry has stated publicly that having messed up his chances of playing in the 2016 Ryder Cup, having won the WGC at Firestone at Akron, Ohio in 2015, the 2021 Ryder Cup is his driving force this year. The best way to get an automatic spot in that team would be to win something big and all things point to a big performance for the genial Irishman this week.