Johnson is the man to beat in big hitters’ battle
St Louis — Dustin Johnson is the favourite to win the PGA Championship in Bellerive this week, where the long hitters will be at home in the final Major of 2018.
A course stretching to 7,547 yards, wide fairways and soft greens will give the big bombers the advantage they did not always enjoy at July’s Open Championship on the parched fairways at Carnoustie.
Johnson, fellow Americans Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka, Englishmen Justin Rose and Tommy Fleetwood, and Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy loom as the main contenders.
Less likely to triumph, but sure to attract much attention all the same, are Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth, who can achieve the "Career Grand Slam".
Woods did not play well in Akron last week and Bellerive is not really up his alley. A decade removed from his 14th, and most recent, Major victory, he is better suited nowadays to courses that demand subtlety and shot-making.
Spieth played poorly in Akron as well, and he too does not appear to be a good match for Bellerive.
Johnson is not No1 in the world by accident, but he is not quite the closer in Majors that he is in regular tournaments.
Another near miss at the US Open in June, where he finished third after a pedestrian final round, resurrected nagging doubts about his ability to seal the deal.
The 2016 US Open remains his only Major victory. He has been in contention often enough to have plenty of silverware.
McIlroy has heaps of great golf left in him but needs to win a Major on a firm and difficult track to shed the tag of being a flat-track bully, to use cricketing parlance for a batsman who runs up big scores when conditions are favourable.
McIlroy’s four Major titles have all come on rain-softened courses where he could bomb away with his driver and attack with his irons. He should be at home this week.
Another player who is worth keeping close tabs on is American Tony Finau, who has finished in the top 10 in all three Majors in 2018.
A prodigiously long hitter, statistically the third-longest driver on the PGA Tour in 2018, he reduces almost every par-five to a par-four. If he finds the fairways at Bellerive, watch out.
Bellerive’s Zoysia grass fairways invariably offer perfect lies. A modest but not very deep rough will sometimes penalise errant drives, while the greens, which need to be watered this time of year to keep them alive, should allow players to fire fearlessly at the pins.
Englishman Ross Fisher says the greens are "unusually slow for a Major, very soft" but all in all he likes what he sees.
"The fairways are 40-50 yards wide, so if you miss the fairway you know you’re driving it poorly this week," the world No46 said after playing the front nine on Monday.
Five-times Major winner Phil Mickelson predicts a low winning score.
"[On the] greens you can make a lot of putts, the fairways are pristine, the ball just sits up beautifully and around the greens you can spin your chip shots, and get them close, so I feel like you can attack the golf course," he said.