Rory, Rickie and galvanised Garcia the men to beat

Valhalla is a stadium-style golf course, which offers its competitors a wonderful study in contrasting landscapes and colour from the open, lower-lying front nine holes to the markedly more elevated and densely-wooded back nine.

Rory, Rickie and galvanised Garcia the men to beat

Built with Major championships specifically in mind, Valhalla is indelibly stamped with a collection of very strong and dangerous par-4 holes which could define this week’s US PGA — from the short and drivable fourth and 13th to the lengthy 500 yard-plus second, sixth and 16th — all with water in play.

On the whole, the course places a premium on long, accurate driving and the ability to hit greens in regulation from distance. But we can also expect the heat and humidity of Louisville to be a factor.

Rory McIlroy once again starts out as firm favourite on a course set-up that will hold no fears for him, as it suits his own game strengths. Hype aside, his greatest rival is likely to be fatigue because no one quite knows how much the emotionally-draining toil of being in contention and winning two of the world’s largest tournaments back to back in recent weeks will have taken out of him.

To win, Rory will just have to hang in there over the opening rounds, safe in the knowledge that with each passing day he will get stronger and stronger. His competitors will want to put distance into him but if he can get within striking distance come Sunday afternoon then he will hold all the aces — the game, the confidence and the intimidation factor.

And what of the others, starting with the Americans?

The home town favourites of Kenny Perry and JB Holmes are strong and, should they contend, they will guarantee a raucous atmosphere at Valhalla, but surely this is another prime opportunity for the consistently brilliant Rickie Fowler — who this year has finished as a runner-up in the US Open and the Open and has had a top-five finish in the Masters — to shine and possibly win his first Major.

In doing so, he could become the next star in the stripes that America so desperately desires.

Under coach Butch Harmon’s expert guidance he has become a more complete player with his increased length off the tee and his improved scrambling stats.

And what about Sergio Garcia?

In 1998, when I finished third in the Irish Open, I sat beside him on the podium as he was then the leading amateur, only to return the following year to win the Irish Open as a professional.

Back then I was impressed by his ambition to conquer the world and, more especially, Tiger Woods in the American’s back yard on the PGA Tour. Sadly for Sergio, he was not about to be cast as the hero. There would be no rivalry. It was Woods who emphatically ruled his roost and Sergio, at best, was a sidekick only occasionally allowed to live off Tiger’s scraps.

At times in recent years those scars have proven to be a little too raw for a clearly demoralised and de-motivated Garcia and his petulance has only made matters worse. But to his credit, Garcia has knuckled down once more, addressed his own expectations and thankfully is now again playing with the type of joy and exuberance he so openly demonstrated in his early years as a professional golfer.

At 34 years of age he still has plenty of time on his hands. Quite honestly, you can’t win 27 times worldwide without being a great player and up until recently everyone, it seems, knew that except perhaps Garcia himself.

Given his encouraging recent form, one suspects a more mature Garcia is now ready to put his scars and his winless 63 Major championship haul behind him. It seems as if he is ready to stop competing against himself.

If he can, then no one will begrudge him realising the Major championship his talent so richly deserves — least of all Tiger Woods.

Valhalla: The key holes

No. 3 (Par-3), 205 yards

A tricky wind, easily misread, can lead to dropped shots at the first par-three. Floyd’s Fork, a waterway in play throughout the front nine, is to the right of the green. Misjudging the wind could see shots pushed to the right, down a slope and into the water.

No. 6 (Par-4), 495 yards

A challenging hole which can lead to rewards for those willing to take risks. An accurate tee shot is needed to set up an easier approach of what is still likely to be at least 200 yards. There is a bunker to the left side of the green, which is tough, and a par is a good result.

No. 7 (Par-5), 597 yards

Risk against reward on this hole, the longest on the course, as players get to choose on a split fairway. The risky left side of the fairway is narrow and the second shot brings water into play. The fairway to the right is safer, but the approach shot is still difficult as players must decide how courageous they want to be.

No. 10 (Par-5), 590 yards

The 10th is a double-dogleg which includes trees to the left and deep rough. A bunker protects the front of the green, and the approach shot will be the key. Finding the trap would be costly, as would shots missing long and going over the green. While this is an opportunity, it will cause many players to come unstuck.

No. 18 (Par-5), 542 yards

With the green reachable in two, this is an opportunity to gain a shot late in round. A bunker guards the front of the green — and a smaller one on the left — but the green is again tricky. Tiger Woods completed his play-off win over Bob May here when the tournament was last held at the course in 2000.

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Join us for a special evening of Cheltenham chat on Friday March 12 at 6.30pm with racing legend and Irish Examiner columnist Ruby Walsh, Irish Examiner racing correspondent Tommy Lyons, and former champion jockey and tv presenter Mick Fitzgerald, author of Better than Sex.

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