GOLF journalist Matt Cooper (@MattCooperGolf) writes for ESPN and Golf365 and has previewed the upcoming PGA Championship from Bellerive.
PGA Championship | 9th-11th August 2018 | Eleven Sports
The PGA Championship has always been the odd one out.
In its earliest incarnation it was a match play event and throughout the 1950s and 60s its positioning on the calendar made it impossible for golfers to play both it and the Open Championship, a wilfully stubborn act of decision-making, determined to be as awkward as possible.
In another phase of its history, the tournament had a habit of being hosted by the most humid locations the committee could find, perhaps one reason it threw up apparently random winners, as if major champions were plucked from a tombola stall whilst a wet-through and crimson Colin Montgomerie chuntered in the background like a melting lollipop.
In a desperate attempt to create itself an identity, there was a short-lived period when the event was subtitled “Glory’s Last Shot”, but it always had the whiff of an ill-advised tattoo and it didn’t last long. There were “internal conversations” and it was quietly dropped.
And so, to this year, the final time it will be the fourth major of the year. The latest rescue act is to return the Players Championship back in its March slot and pop the PGA Championship in its place, becoming the second major of 2019, the theory being that the US Open and Open are strong enough to sit alone whilst the FedEx Cup can rattle along a little sooner.
You sense the change will work and the event can finally put its neediness to bed.
Major player #1: Xander Schauffele has played just six major championships and already boasts four top 20 finishes, three of them in the top six. He was also a winner of the Tour Championship at East Lake last year, a track renovated by Rees Jones, just as this week’s host has been.
Major player #2: Tony Finau has seven top 30s from ten major championship starts. Six of them are top 20s and four top tens, including three this season alone.
This is a good week for trends, one of the strongest being the remarkable difficulty chasers have on the final day. In fact, 18 of the last 22 winners were tied second or better after 54 holes and not one winner in that spell was worse than tied fourth.
None of this is currently too much help unless you can see into the future (and if you possess that knack you’d do even better to glance forward another 24 hours in order to land a coup), yet we can glance at a few other constants in our quest to back the victor.
First up: event form (eight of the last ten winners already possessed a top 20 finish in the PGA Championship). Secondly: seasonal record (eight of the ten were already winners that year and seven had ticked off a top ten in the majors). Finally: recent form (seven had a top 20 in their previous four starts).
Unsurprisingly, that leaves us with plenty of the favourites, but it also draws out three names with valid chances above and beyond the numbers game.
Webb Simpson (50/1 Unibet)
First up is Webb Simpson (50/1 Unibet), whose Players Championship win in May was one of the most comprehensive of the season and fits in nicely with a very solid year of major championship campaigning. In fact, he’s notched top 20s at Augusta National, Shinnecock Hills and Carnoustie.
In his last three starts, he’s had the look of a player ready to contend again. He opened The Greenbrier with a 61, a third round 67 got him into contention in The Open and there was a second round 65 last week at Firestone Country Club.
He’s still only 32 years old, yet won the US Open back in 2012 and a second major looks something he is well capable of.
Bubba Watson (66/1 Unibet)
Back in 2008, Bellerive hosted the BMW Championship, part of the FedEx Cup play-offs and Bubba Watson (66/1 Unibet) opened with a dreadful pair of 73s which left him last but three in a 68-man field.
However, he then shot 66-65, a weekend tally only one man bettered. Admittedly, he had little to play for other than pride, but those two rounds should provide good memories.
His most recent form is far from great (MC-MC-T31), yet he did card a 67 in the third-round last week and his medium range form is fantastic. In fact, he’s notched three wins this season.
Remember also, that back in 2010 he lost this tournament in a play-off. Given that he’s a two-time major champion, fits all the trends, has a trio to titles for the year and a touch of course form he’s a really nice price.
Patrick Reed (40/1 Unibet)
Finally, Patrick Reed (40/1 Unibet) gets a vote. On the one hand, I don’t think he’s finished with the business of winning majors after the success in Augusta this April. There’s a sense that some recent winners of the big ones were satisfied with their catch. If they were an animal in the wild they’d caught their prey, fed on it, and wandered away for a snooze under a shady tree.
Reed, on the other hand, looks like the kind of animal who’s tasted game once and is hungry for more. It wasn’t entirely surprising that he struggled at Carnoustie (he’s yet to notch a top ten on the linksland), but crucially he didn’t sulk when a first day 75 left him T110th. In fact, he spent the rest of the week fighting his way through the field, eventually landing T28th.
Moreover, he was fourth in the US Open and tied second in this tournament 12 months ago. Three top fours in his last year of major golf is exceptional stuff and better than quite a few players available at much shorter prices.