Relaxed Rory McIlroy in the driving seat at Baltusrol

Relaxed Rory McIlroy in the driving seat at Baltusrol

A driver’s golf course that hides nothing over its 7,428 yards and course-softening thunderstorms is the forecast during the next four days. It is all setting up very nicely for Rory McIlroy in the major championship that has brought him the most reward, writes Simon Lewis.

The two-time PGA Championship winner has done everything but lick his lips, rub his hands together, and do a jig of delight at the thought of taking on Baltusrol this weekend in the final major of the season — and it is easy to see why.

His four previous major successes have been delivered in similar circumstances, from the rain-sodden Congressional for the 2011 US Open through the weather- interrupted Open of 2014 at Hoylake and at the bombers’ alleys in Kiawah Island and Valhalla, McIlroy has bullied the courses, taken advantage of the conditions, and conquered his rivals.

And despite not showing his stellar form on a consistent basis this season, he is clearly relishing the prospect of teeing off here today at 1.30pm Irish time in the company of Phil Mickelson, the 2005 winner here at Baltusrol, and Jason Day, the world number one and defending champion.

Relaxed Rory McIlroy in the driving seat at Baltusrol

The Irish Open has been his only victory so far this season, but McIlroy is ready to let rip, even leading the long drive competition at the first tee during yesterday’s practice with a 345-yard bullet that was only pipped by Korea’s Byeong Hun An late in the day which rolled a couple of feet past his effort.

“Everything is straight out in front of you. There’s no real hidden secrets to it, and I feel that’s what really lets me excel,” McIlroy said of the par-70 parkland course.

“I feel like I can play my game in PGA Championships. I can hit driver off the tee the most times, and from there, if I drive it well, I feel like I have a big advantage.

“It’s always been a tournament that’s set up well for me. I’ve had some good finishes here. Obviously the wins in 2012 and 2014, but then I’ve had a couple of top-threes, a couple of top-tens, apart from that, as well. So it’s been a good tournament for me.”

European Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke sees no reason to disagree with his friend, the world number four, despite some concerns over other aspects of his game, while former world number one David Duval told the Golf Channel: “He wants to stand up 14 times a round and hit driver because he knows if he does that and he’s driving it well, he will probably win.”

McIlroy pinpointed two aspects of his game that need to fire for his week to be successful and not surprisingly the big stick was one of them.

“Driving — you’ve got to drive the ball well. It’s a long golf course for a par 70, and the two par fives coming at the end of the course. You’ve got to drive the ball in the fairway, and pretty long, as well. Looking at the scorecard there, there’s a lot of par 4s that are sort of up in the 480-, 500-yard mark. You’ve got to drive it well.

“I think the greens are so big, as well. You’re going to see a lot of guys hit a lot of greens. I think lag putting is going to be a big thing. If you have good speed on the greens, I think that’s going to be a big help. So I think most weeks, if you drive it well and putt well, you’re going to do okay.”

The trends of recent PGA Championships also suggest McIlroy is part of a small, select group of golfers able to contend this week and not because the pattern of his victories in 2012 and 2014 suggests 2016 is another of his years.

In the last 10 PGA Championships, post-Mickelson’s win at Baltusrol in 2005, only two winners have come from outside the world’s top 30, and they were real outliers, YE Yang in 2009, ranked 110, and Keegan Bradley, 108th in 2011.

Even Jason Dufner, ranked 21st when he won at Oak Hill in 2013, and Martin Kaymer, No 13 when he became 2010 champion, are off-trend with six of the last ten winners coming from inside the top five of the official golf world rankings.

Relaxed Rory McIlroy in the driving seat at Baltusrol

Take out a misfiring Jordan Spieth, whose normally ruthless putting let him down badly at Troon two weeks ago, and McIlroy’s rivals appear to be on a short, albeit formidable shortlist of Day, Dustin Johnson, and Henrik Stenson, each of whom have every reason to believe they can rise to the occasion.

And yet the PGA Championship has a habit of producing first-time major winners, with Kaymer, Bradley, Dufner, and defending champion Day all joining the club in the final major of the year.

This year has also seen maiden major victories in the first three championships with Danny Willett at the Masters, Johnson at the US Open, and Stenson at The Open.

A fourth first-timer would complete a “rookie slam” for the first time since 2011, when McIlroy was part of a sweep that also included Charl Schwartzel, Darren Clarke and Keegan Bradley.

There are several who have the ability to follow suit, not least world number 7 Rickie Fowler and No 10 Sergio Garcia.

Nothing in life is certain, of course, particularly when it comes to major championship golf, but a victory for Rory McIlroy on Sunday night would not leave too many people shaking their heads in disbelief.

This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.


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