By Matt Roberts
Last week, Rory McIlroy had social media in a frenzy with a series of mysterious hints about his return to action following a total rupture of the ligament in his left ankle.
The Instagram posts, which showed him working in the gym and hitting his signature booming drives on the range, created more questions than answers. They had been like a teaser campaign, building tremendous hype and stimulating enormous interest about a possible return to competition. Moreover, while the rest of the golfing world were competing in Ohio, he was reminding them of his considerable presence. ‘Don’t forget about me’, he was saying.
On Friday, McIlroy had one last cryptic message up his sleeve. He posted a picture of the inside of a private plane captioned with various emojis including a US flag, a thumbs up symbol and a golf flag. Journalists have become experts at deciphering emoji-laden messages and McIlroy’s photo could mean only one thing – he was heading to Wisconsin to play the US PGA Championship.
If teaser campaigns are normally used in the build up to the launch of a movie, then after McIlroy’s trail of clues, this week’s US PGA Championship must be the blockbuster of the summer. Following such a high profile, hysteria-filled build up, it’s important now that the tournament doesn’t flop.
In truth, there’s very little danger of that happening. The year’s final major has myriad plotlines available and promises to be every bit as exciting as the three epitomes that have preceded it.
As the defending champion, much of the focus will naturally fall on McIlroy. After playing a couple of practice rounds he has declared his ankle ‘100% for golf.’ He therefore must be among the favourites this week. Since 2009, he has a US PGA scoring average of below 70 having shot 11 rounds in the 60s. In other words, he’s been handsomely the most consistent player at this event for the last six years. Expect him to be in contention to retain the legendary Wanamker trophy on Sunday.
Another man who will be bullish about his chances is Tiger Woods. The 14-time major champion played well at the Quicken Loans National a couple of weeks ago. His short game, putting and iron play were impressive and his second round 66 was the highlight of his season so far. But yet again he struggled for consistency off the tee, erratically spraying the ball and struggling to stay in play from start to finish. Somehow, he needs to find a way to play well for four consecutive days.
The great Bobby Jones once said that ‘golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course – the distance between your ears.’ It’s the most mental of sports. At his peak, one of Tiger’s defining features was a superhuman ability to focus. But now, ranked 278 in the world, he has a jumbled mind.
The beauty of golf is that you don’t just have to negotiate the rest of the field, you also have to play the course. This year, the US PGA Championship returns to Whistling Straits. It’s a brutal 7,501-yard links-style course built on the Lake Michigan shoreline with over 1,000 bunkers. It will certainly test the mental fortitude of the players. To get a sense of how tricky it can be, you only need to look at the names of some of the holes; ‘Snake’, ‘Shipwreck’, ‘Endless Bite’, ‘Pinched Nerve’ and ‘Cliff Hanger’ all suggest terrifying danger.
Designed by Pete Dye, one of the most celebrated golf course architects in the world, the final four holes at Whistling Straits combine to form possibly the most demanding closing stretches in major championship golf: a long par-4 15th that always plays into the wind, a par-5 16th, a treacherous par-3 17th with the green perched on the edge of a cliff and a punishing par-4 18th. This means that it’s a course set up for breathtaking finishes.
Both previous US PGA Championships held at Whistling Straits finished in playoffs. In 2004 Vijay Singh triumphed over Justin Leonard and Chris DiMarco, while in 2010 Martin Kaymer saw off Bubba Watson. Both players went on to become world number one shortly after those wins. That could be a good omen for Jordan Spieth. The 22-year-old Texan is snapping at the heels of Rory McIlroy and looking to become just the third man in history to win three majors in one year following an already extraordinary 2015 season. Don’t put it past him.
Two players who would be popular winners are Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson. Fowler has the desire and the ability to turn the current Big Two in men’s golf into a Holy Triad while Johnson’s painful major losses are beginning to pile up. He will be looking for redemption this week; back in 2010 he needed a par to win on the 72nd hole but made a triple-bogey when he incurred a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in an un-raked bunker.
Finally, the tournament is significant as it’s the final major where anchored putters will be used before they are outlawed in 2016. It was a controversial decision to ban them and it will be fascinating to see if Adam Scott can take advantage of one final opportunity to win with his now famous broom-handle putter.
Photograph: Philip Wilson via Flickr