Ohio is the birthplace of golf’s most famous son Jack Nicklaus, so it was a fitting stage for Shane Lowry to “come of age” in winning one of the game’s most prestigious titles, the Bridgestone World Golf Championship on Sunday night.
In doing so he also earned the security of a three-year exemption on the lucrative PGA Tour and a stage to compete regularly against the very best players in the world.
Right from the off, I was hugely impressed by the manner of his victory as an amateur in the Irish Open of 2009. Coming down the stretch on the final day, he showed such composure when hitting whatever shot was required despite the magnitude of the moment and the deplorable conditions. In doing so he won a tournament that most amateurs would have left behind.
Since then his career has been a bit of a slow burner but this year it seems more regular play against tougher opposition on the PGA Tour has suited him and, with several near misses, one felt this victory was due. The fact it came in a WGC event against one of the best fields in world golf only made the victory sweeter and, hopefully, now the world’s 19th ranked player has overcome the mental hurdle of winning on the PGA Tour and will continue to build his golfing resume this week at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.
Designed by the famous Pete Dye in 1998, Whistling Straits is another links-style look venue on the major championship rota this year. Playing just over 7,500 yards long the course is littered with bunkers, 14 water hazards and fescue-covered dunes, all of which make the wind swept terrain intimidating to the eye but a great spectacle for television.
In reality, the Whistling Straits challenge has proven to be very fair, if the previous PGA Championships of 2004 and 2010 are anything to go by, but there is a huge premium placed on hitting fairways and greens. Indeed it’s a venue where, statistically, consistently hitting greens is more important than being ranked amongst the best putters in the field.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that its two past winners, Vijay Singh and Martin Kaymer, are more noted for their consistent striking ability than their short games - something which hopefully will help a competitively out-of-touch McIlroy (who finished third behind Kaymer in 2010) as he re-enters the competitive arena.
As with all great golf courses there is a sting in the tail in that the finishing stretch of No’s 15, 17 and 18 were three of the four toughest ranked holes in 2010 and are quite likely to change the outcome of the tournament. The hardest hole on the course is undoubtedly the 520 yard par four 18th, a hole which had a stroke average of over 4.5 and yielded only 14 birdies all tournament in 2010.
And what of the tournament itself? Firstly, its fair to say Rory McIlroy’s remarkable recovery from ruptured ankle ligaments is to be welcomed by everyone in the game but undoubtedly his participation this week makes things a lot more interesting – adding spice to a transatlantic rivalry that is brewing with McIlroy hoping to fend off Jordan Spieth’s ambitions to win his third major championship of the year and with it the world No 1 ranking.
One has to admire McIlroy’s determination to get himself back fully fit and into the arena for the PGA Championship but his lack of competitive sharpness is likely to prove decisive in what is the most competitive cycle of the year for professionals.
That said, McIlroy is a competitor and hopefully he can draw inspiration from his playing partners Jordan Spieth and Zach Johnson and in doing so get stronger as the tournament progresses.
And what about Dustin Johnson? Which Johnson will show up – the man who was in total control of the Open Championship just a few short weeks ago or the man who faded into oblivion over the final 36 holes?
Johnson is carrying so many demons that one has to question whether he has been able to bury them or indeed if he can stay out of his own way long enough to win his first major?
Speaking of demons, can Tiger Woods emerge as a credible challenger once more and what about our own Graeme McDowell who is slowly turning a corner with his own game.
On so many fronts it promises to be a great tournament but, hopefully, we will see the right questions asked of the players’ psychological make-up and courage for a worthy winner to emerge.
Whistling Straits has a history of dramatic finishes.
Expect another next Sunday.
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