Golf,

Spieth on course for career Grand Slam

USPGA CHAMPIONSHIP


Best bets
2pts each-way Jordan Spieth @ 16/1
1.5pts each-way Xander Schauffele @ 20/1
1pt each-way Hideki Matsuyama @ 28/1
0.5pt each-way Max Homa @ 50/1
0.5pt each-way Tiger Woods @ 66/1
0.5pt each-way Padraig Harrington @ 500/1
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We’re paying EIGHT places at the USPGA Championship!


When the last USPGA Championship went to Southern Hills in steamy Oklahoma back in 2007, people were dropping like flies with heatstroke, temperatures topped 100F, humidity was off the scale and two players even waved the white flag and withdrew.

The casualty count on the week saw 364 spectators treated by medics and 37 carted off by ambulance to hospital. The golfers gulped down ten bottles of liquid per round to stay hydrated and so stifling was the heat that John Daly spent practice day in the casino, turning up on the first tee totally unprepared and shooting a 67!

The Wild Thing was unable to keep that up and the winner that week was Tiger Woods (as if you hadn’t guessed), picking up the 13th of his 15 Majors. And here he is 15 years, ten operations and a near-death car accident later still, at 46, pitching for glory in his second outing back following 17 months out of the game.

Saying he has made tremendous improvement since his Masters comeback five weeks ago, he looks sure to beat his 47th place at Augusta where he astounded most people even by making the cut. Rule him out at your peril and with Fitzdares paying down to eighth, an each-way investment at 66/1 is not the daftest bet you will ever strike.

While the PGA may be the most minor and least sexy of the Majors, this year’s 65th edition since it switched from matchplay to medal play in 1959 has so many storylines it’s hard to know where to start.

With record-breaking Phil “No Mates” Mickelson in self-imposed exile and refusing to defend after making incendiary remarks about the PGA Tour, the continuing Tiger saga dominating every sports bulletin and the Saudi rebel tour a red-hot potato ready to explode at any minute, the golf itself will struggle to get the coverage it deserves.

And what a feast we have in store with Scottie Scheffler, already a four-time winner this year, bidding for back-to-back Majors, Jordan Spieth out to complete a career slam and join an elite group of five, Jon Rahm desperate to regain the No. 1 spot, Rory McIlroy chasing a PGA hat-trick and much, much more.

One certainty is that majestic Southern Hills, a 7556-yard par 70, will sort the men out from the boys. With only two par fives – both 620-plus monsters – it is 425 yards longer than the one Woods conquered 15 years ago to claim his fourth PGA.

The 1930s layout was given a major makeover in 2018, with a new creek added to the hazards and the bunker count now in the 90s, there’s no 26-under like we had last week, nor anything remotely close to that. Past evidence suggests the winning score is more likely to be single rather than double digits under par.

This is the fifth PGA at Southern Hills, a course so revered it has also hosted three US Opens. In the first PGA, in 1970, winner Dave Stockton’s one-under score was enough and it was 600 yards shorter then! Of the seven Majors played there, only once has the winner got into double figures under par.

Despite its name, this is a predominantly flat course which is great news for the Woods leg as hilly Augusta left him exhausted. He still made the cut in his first tournament golf for 17 months and the next progression is a top-ten finish on the climb to being a serious contender at our Open at his favourite links, St Andrews.

But top-tens were never Tiger’s thing – his eyes forever trained on the W – and the PGA move from sticky August to cool, breezy May is a big plus as Woods is far less likely to run out of gas.

Scheffler, Rahm and Justin Thomas head Fitzdares’ betting and all three obviously deserve respect. Although he never looks like he’s under pressure, Scheffler will be feeling it this week, going in as world No. 1 and being reigning Masters champion.

As for Rahm, he finally got off the mark – he was winless since last year’s US Open –  but made heavy weather of beating a sub-standard field in Mexico. He may find one or two too good again but remains Europe’s best hope in a Major that’s been won by the home side the last six years.

Thomas has now gone 14 months and 27 tournaments without a victory, so 12/1 looks short for him and at the prices I much prefer his good pal, the revitalised Spieth, who has been first and second on his two latest starts and is brimming over with positivity.

This is a not a bombers’ track and the driver is not always the right play off the tee. It requires strategy with no fewer than 11 doglegs and punishing fall-off areas which will give full rein to the Dallas star’s around-the-green flair.

True, he misses more short putts than he did when he was world No 1 but to compensate he is driving it much straighter and, with a 307-yard average, much longer too.

Only a Sunday brain fade when he three-putted from 12ft at the tenth prevented him winning back to back following his Heritage triumph. His 25-under at the Nelson would have been more than good enough most weeks. He was just unlucky that repeat winner KH Lee refused to wilt. As Spieth said later: “I feel like I have all the shots. I just feel I’m doing the right things.”

The closest Spieth came to taking the massive Wanamaker Trophy home was in 2015 when only Jason Day got the better of him at Whistling Straits. That elusive Slam beckons – achieved only by Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods – and it will be fascinating to see how he handles the pressure if he’s in the mix at the weekend.

To follow him home, Hideki Matsuyama, who rarely has a bad week, and Xander Schauffele put down markers with top-five finishes at Craig Ranch with the latter’s closing 61 sending him off to Tulsa in high spirits.

The Olympic gold medalist is overdue a Major and in a week when staying out of the Bermuda rough is key, he has the game that suits.

McIlroy followed second place at the Masters with a top-five at Wells Fargo but I worry about his concentration and the number of times he finds greenside bunkers from the middle of the fairway.

Viktor Hovland can count on strong local support as he studied at Oklahoma State but will his suspect short game stand up to this fierce examination?

I’m sure Padraig Harrington will be saying “If Mickelson can win this after turning 50, why not me?” I’d like to see this great scrapper making nonsense of his 500/1 odds.

A past PGA champion and, more relevantly, fourth alongside his Irish pal Shane Lowry last year, Pod proved he  still has plenty of game and second place on Sunday to the redoubtable Steve Stricker in the first Champions Tour Major of the year was splendid preparation.

The scrambling skills of Pod and Lowry will stand them in good stead this week. Both play difficult courses well but Lowry struggles to complete the job on Sundays.

It is 56 tournaments on two tours since his last victory in the 2019 Open at Royal Portrush. So 28/1 is giving nothing away and at 22 points longer you can have a four-time winner in the underrated Max Homa, fresh from a Wells Fargo triumph and starting to believe more in himself.

One more to consider is Christiaan Bezuidenhout whose consistency and solid putting are made for Southern Hills. 12th place on Sunday was the South African’s best of the year – hence the three-figure price – but not having a top-ten on his current CV didn’t stop KH Lee last week.

If you fancy Collin Morikawa, Patrick Cantlay or Cam Smith, I can’t put you off but I’m sticking with Spieth for a highly popular victory and a coveted place among the Slammers.

No heatwave this time, instead the possibility of thunderstorms or showers the first two days and a barometer swinging from 32C on Thursday to a cool 18C on Saturday. Quite a stiff breeze too but sunshine all the way for Sunday’s showdown. Bring it on!

SPECIALS


Best bets
3pts win Tiger Woods Top 20 finish @ 11/4
1pt each-way Adam Scott Top Australian @ 11/2
2pts win Joaquin Niemann Top South American @ 7/5
1pt win Joo-Hyung Kim Top South Korean @ 4/1
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There will be thousands of disappointed golf fans in Oklahoma this weekend if Tiger Woods misses the cut but they will take encouragement from his three-little-words answer to “Are you feeling stronger now than at the Masters?” His reply: “Oh God yes!”

Fitzdares make Tiger odds-on at 4/6 to make the weekend but let’s be a little more adventurous than that and back the great man at 11/4 for a Top 20 finish.

Unless he’s telling porkies about his gammy leg, Tiger should improve significantly on his 47th at Augusta where he finished up exhausted and struggling for pars. Walking that steeply undulating course is taxing even if you are 100 percent fit.

Southern Hills is far less physically demanding so fading out to finish 23 shots behind winner Scottie Scheffler as a struggling Tiger did last month is a scenario unlikely to be replicated.

And don’t forget he is a course winner, one of only two in the field, Alex Cejka’s victory in the Senior PGA Championship there 12 months ago having earned him a spot this week, coincidentally with the same eight-under total Woods posted 14 years earlier.

Thankfully for Woods’ prospects, the USPGA date switch from August to May means the heat, humidity and hydration problems he had to overcome in 2007 do not apply now. So it’s all systems go and the miracle man might even contend on Sunday afternoon. Now wouldn’t that be something!

Turning from a 46-year-old to a teenager who might one day scale the heights, watch out for Joo-Hyung Kim who could spring a 4/1 surprise in the Top South Korean market.

He’s a big lad and a talented one too with two wins under his belt on both the Korean and Asian Tours and has already made an impression in the few opportunities he has had in the USA.

His 17th at the Byron Nelson was his best yet and he’ll have to step up on that to finish ahead of KH Lee and Si-Woo Kim. I’m counting on Lee having some reaction to his out-of-the-blue Nelson success and Kim, who blows hot and cold, having an “off” week.

Top Aussie will take plenty of winning with Cam Smith having a great season, Jason Day looking more like his old self and Marc Leishman a big-occasion performer but Adam Scott’s course experience could swing it.

Twelfth to Woods in the 2007 PGA, Scotty has been putting with more confidence in recent outings and his arrow-straight driving has to be a big plus on a course where the fairways have to be hit. He’s 11/2 and you can bet each-way on this one.

Finally, Riviera winner Joaquin Niemann looks a worthy 7/5 favourite for Top South American. The Chilean was in contention for three rounds at the Nelson and should have too much class for his three rivals.

Fellow countryman Mito Pereira looks a bigger threat than Sebastian Munoz who tried to go wire to wire at the weekend, couldn’t quite do so, and looked exhausted at the end.

THREEBALL SPECIALS


Best bets

2pts Keegan Bradley 7:20pm @ 5/4
1pt Harold Varner III at 7.25pm @ 13/8
2pts Matt Fitzpatrick  at 8.09pm @ 6/5
1pt treble
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A threeball made in heaven tops the bill on the first day of the USPGA but whether being a part of the Tiger Woods circus will inspire Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth or cramp their style, we won’t know until that marquee match gets under way.

It’s going to be a madhouse morning at Southern Hills with a vast crowd zeroing in on the one game which tees off at 2.11pm UK time and will have golf aficionados “working” from home glued to their screens. Woods as 3/1 outsider with Fitzdares makes some appeal but this is one threeball that goes into the “too difficult” folder.

Later in the day, at 7.36pm, there’s another massive confrontation with the world’s 1-2-3 in the rankings, Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm and Collin Morikawa, which is, if anything, a puzzle even harder to solve.

With Rahm and Scheffler both recent winners and Morikawa’s form having dipped a little, you’d have to favour one of the front two, but which?

Just before that cracker, there’s a third threeball which could point us towards the outright winner with Dustin Johnson, Patrick Cantlay and Justin Thomas in the 7.14 game. Again, it’s a guess-up (Cantlay just preferred) so, hoping to find calmer waters, I’ll be backing 2011 PGA champion Keegan Bradley who is in rare form (2nd Wells Fargo, 4th Zurich, 5th Players, 8th Texas), Saudi International winner Harold Varner, recently 3rd at Heritage and 4th in the New Orleans pairs, and ultra-reliable Brit Matt Fitzpatrick.

The Yorkshireman’s Wells Fargo second last time out was the pick of five top-tens this year while one playing partner, Sergio Garcia, has dropped a loud hint that he’s shortly on the way to richer Saudi pastures and may only be going through the motions.


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