PGA CHAMPIONSHIP: The year’s second major gets underway this week in sunny South Carolina, where the world’s best will attempt to tame one of the most difficult courses on the planet, Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, and etch their name on the famed Wanamaker Trophy, one of the sport’s most revered prizes.
First staged in 1916, the PGA has long been regarded as golf’s “other” major, a tournament that, while important, is a notch lower in prestige than the Masters and the two Opens. In an attempt to change that reputation, the tournament was moved from August to May two years ago, placing it second in the yearly rotation as opposed to last. It’s too early to tell whether the move will have the desired effect, especially after last year’s edition was moved back to August due to the pandemic, but it certainly seems like the right call so far, as this week feels like a major with a capital M.
Like every great golf tournament, the course will be the star of the show this week, and what a course it is– stretching out to nearly 7,900 yards from all the way back, Kiawah’s Ocean Course is considered by most to be Pete Dye’s greatest triumph, a stunning beachside layout that is unforgiving, intimidating, and can be downright unfair if the wind blows. When this event was last held at the Ocean Course, in 2012, the lasting memory was Rory McIlroy’s carefree stroll as he blew away the field by 8 shots. But what many don’t remember is the second round, on Friday, when howling winds made the world’s best golfers look like 5-handicappers and the day’s scoring average was over 78. High winds haven’t been forecasted for this week, so the players might catch a break, but from all reports the course is playing firm and fast, so avoiding the many bunkers, natural areas, and hazards could be problematic, and holding the greens from the rough may prove impossible in places.
One thing firm conditions should do is decrease the advantage for the longer guys, and if you look back at the leaderboard from 2012 you see that many different styles are represented in the top-10, from bombers like McIlroy and Justin Rose to crafty vets like Steve Stricker and Ian Poulter. Tim Clark, one of the shortest guys the Tour has seen over the past decade, finished 11th, so it seems pretty clear that there’s more than one way to skin the cat that is the Ocean Course.
After his virtuoso performance in 2012 and a victory two weeks ago in the Wells Fargo, McIlroy is the clear-cut favorite this week and is hovering around 13.5 at BETDAQ, but the market is crowded at the top, with six players currently shorter than 20/1. The Ocean Course is a ball-striker’s layout for sure– there’s no “faking it” out there– so we need to be on the lookout for guys who have been flushing it lately and thrive in difficult conditions. With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Collin Morikawa (38.0)- Major championship pressure certainly didn’t phase Morikawa last August, when he shot a Sunday 64 at Harding Park to cruise to a 2-shot victory in this tournament. He’s now looking to become the second consecutive back-to-back PGA champion after Brooks Koepka pulled it off in 2018 and 2019, and his machine-like ball-striking should serve him quite well at the Ocean Course. He’s been playing beautifully over the past couple of months, winning the WGC-Workday back in February on a course that many compare to Kiawah (Concession) and making every cut since then, with his last two starts a T18 at the Masters and a T7 at the RBC Heritage. Morikawa leads the Tour in strokes gained on approach and ranks second in strokes gained tee-to-green, so he’s simply swinging the club better than anyone out there right now. He’s a top-tier option priced like a second-tier option, which makes this an easy decision for me.
Joaquin Niemann (74.0)- Once on a meteoric trajectory, Niemann hasn’t found the winner’s circle since his triumph at the Greenbrier last season, but he does have a pair of runner-ups in 2021, and if his recent play is any indication he’ll be knocking on the door again very soon. A picture of consistency, Niemann has made 17 consecutive cuts, and in his last 12 starts he’s logged ten top-30 finishes and three top-10s, including a T8 at the Valspar and a T18 at the Wells Fargo in his past two outings. Though his putting can get a little wobbly at times, Niemann is a fairways-and-greens maestro who ranks 15th on Tour in strokes gained tee-to-green, meaning he’ll have a better shot at taming the Ocean Course than most. He’s also a terrific wind player, so if the breezes do pick up over the weekend he’ll be well-positioned to succeed. At better than 70/1, Niemann may be the best value on the board this week.
Shane Lowry (98.0)- Continuing the theme of players who have the ball-striking chops to survive the Ocean Course, Lowry has long thrived on his tee-to-green ability and has been particularly good with the irons lately, ranking 38th on Tour in both GIR percentage and strokes gained tee-to-green this season. His recent run of success began with an 8th-place showing at The Players and has included six straight made cuts and a T9 at the RBC Heritage two starts ago, so he’s in fine form, and there are no longer any doubts about his ability to thrive in the major championship spotlight. Like Niemann, he’s an excellent wind player who will become more dangerous should things get breezy as the week progresses, and the straightforward paspalum greens that are said to be stimping at a very manageable 11 should be right up the Irishman’s alley. Lowry has a better chance this week than his price would indicate.