This week, the final major of the year, the PGA Championship returns to one of America’s most famous venues, the Lower Course at Baltusrol.
Located in Springfield, New Jersey, Baltusrol’s original designer, AW Tillinghast, had enough foresight at the time of its construction in 1918 to understand that the course should have the flexibility to accommodate future changes in the game.
So nearly 900 yards of additional length have been added to the course over time without the need for routing changes or movement of greens.
Thanks to the ongoing renovation and restoration work of Robert Trent Jones and his son Rees, including green extensions and a bunker renovation plan that makes the traps more relevant to today’s game, Baltusrol’s design still stays true to its past and the Tillinghast legacy.
Throughout its history, Baltusrol has been more commonly associated with the US Open Championship. The only time it hosted the USPGA, in 2005, Phil Mickelson won with a four-under par total, with just nine others finishing under par.
The par-70 course, measuring 7,462 yards, is fair, despite its penal rough and its small, tricky greens. With everything in front of you, there is no real trickery, so the winner this week will have played the best golf.
That said, there are a few holes and a few shots that the players need to watch out for as they could go a long way towards determining who hoists the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday.
Holes like the sometimes drivable par-four second, the signature par-three fourth hole over water, the enticing 13th, with its left-to-right diagonal drive over a creek, and the 18th, with its deepened fairway bunkers and its lateral water hazard pond, all provide for as much drama as any spectator could ever ask.
Given its fair nature, expect the form players this week to come to the fore. The likes of Dustin Johnson must fancy his chances but so too must an in-form Stenson who has won two of his last three starts.
Right now, it is hard to imagine that we have gotten to this stage of the year without Day, Spieth, or McIlroy having added to their majors tally, so I fully expect fireworks this week.
Can Mickelson’s and Stenson’s duel be repeated by anyone else this week or will their performance at the Open inspire the likes of McIlroy to loosen his shackles somewhat and play with a more aggressive gameplan?
Right now, you feel he could do with a good break but that will have to come of his own volition.
In recent weeks, McIlroy’s persona has been tetchy and his public spat over the Olympics has done nothing to help his case.
It begs the question as to whether the pressure of expectation is becoming too much for him. Where has his smile, his cavalier happy-go-lucky attitude, gone to?
This week, McIlroy will be happy that he is competing on a pure golf course and that Baltusrol places such a premium on ball striking, but none of that will matter if his mind isn’t right so watch out for the early exchanges on the golf course as they will determine his mindset.
For Shane Lowry, this is also a very big week, not just because it represents an opportunity to prove to himself once more that he very much deserves to be considered a contender at this level but also because he needs to get his Ryder Cup campaign back on track.
Much like McIlroy, Lowry has been suffering from a frightening level of inconsistency at key moments this season, brought on primarily by losses in concentration. It is something that he now needs to address because at this level any weaknesses at all are cruelly exposed.
In recent history, the PGA Championship has primarily produced winners from two categories, the very best players or the completely unheralded. But this week, I expect the cream of the crop to rise to the very top.
Stenson and Johnson aside, I expect strong performances from the likes of Day and McIlroy, and, for that matter, Sergio Garcia.
After the heroics of Royal Troon just ten days ago and with the Europeans currently leading the race 2-1 against the Americans in terms of major championship wins this year, my guess is that we may well have another European name on the Wanamaker Trophy come Sunday evening.
Either way, let’s hope that the game of golf will emerge once again as the real winner.
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