As the 99th US PGA Championship gets set to begin at the Quail Hollow club in Charlotte, North Carolina, hopes for what would be a sixth Australian victory in the year’s final major are hardly high.
As most of the pre-tournament attention predictably focuses on course specialist Rory McIlroy, the new Open champion Jordan Spieth and the most recent winner on the PGA Tour, Hideki Matsuyama, none of the six Aussies in the field – Rod Pampling, Cameron Smith, Jason Day, Scott Hend, Marc Leishman and Adam Scott – have much to recommend them on current form.
Even past-champion Day was making mostly negative noises during his sparsely-attended press conference. Which is understandable. In 15 PGA Tour starts this year, the 29-year old Queenslander has only two top-10s to set beside four missed cuts. He arrived at Quail Hollow on the back of a T-24 finish in the WGC Bridgestone Invitational and T-27 at the Open Championship. Hardly stirring stuff.
RIGHT: Jason Day and caddie/coach Col Swatton doing some work on the Quail Hollow greens. PHOTO: Getty Images.
“One of my strengths is putting, so I rely heavily on that confidence-wise,” said Day, who won this event at Whistling Straits two years ago. “I need to know that, even if I don’t hit the ball that well, I’m going to get up-and-down and I’m going to shoot a decent score. Unfortunately, my short game has been pretty poor this year. My putting has been the same and that has added a bit more pressure on the rest of my game.
“Having said that, I’m looking forward to this week. I feel like I’m starting to turn the corner. But so far this has been a very, very poor year for me. My game is not where it should be. I’m not doing the right things on the course. Hopefully I can turn it around and start playing some good golf here.”
That word “hopefully” is the most revealing glimpse into Day’s fragile state of mind. Short on confidence and, at times, motivation, during 2017, he is a shadow of the man who so completely dominated the field two summers ago. Perhaps more importantly, his comments were in direct contrast to those made by McIlroy and Spieth. Both had good things to say about themselves but especially one another.
“Rory is a guy who is very difficult to beat in a one-on-one type situation no matter where it is,” Spieth said. “But especially in majors, because he's not afraid to hit the shot. He plays so aggressively and that's what you have to do to win. You're going to lose some tournaments because of it, but you're going to win a lot more than playing any other way. He won this tournament by eight shots. Obviously that doesn't come from playing safe. Even when he had the lead, he kept his foot on the gas pedal.
“If you're matched up on Sunday, and you get to choose somebody, you obviously want to play against somebody like Rory. He has four major championships and is one of the top-two most-accomplished players in this field. He is one to fear because of what he's capable of doing and how he's going to do it.”
McIlroy was equally complimentary of the 24-year old Texan, who has the chance this week to complete the career Grand Slam. Should he claim the title and the giant Wanamaker Trophy, Spieth would be the youngest of only six men – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods, the others – to achieve what Phil Mickelson calls “golf’s Holy Grail.”
“Jordan has a knack,” said the Northern Irishman. “I call it resilience. I don't know if there's a better word to describe what it is that he has. But he has got this resilience where he gets himself in positions in tournaments from where you don't think he can come back – then he does. It's awfully impressive.
“It's a mental thing. You can hit the shots he was hitting over those last five holes at The Open on the range, no problem. But being able to do it under those circumstances, under the pressure, that's what makes him so good. He is mentally tough, strong, whatever you want to call it. That's his biggest asset. Being able to forget about a bad shot and move on to the next one, that's his greatest weapon.”
Still, whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the various contenders, one thing is clear about what may or may not happen over the next four days. The winner is going to be someone who can hit very long and very high approach shots. Because of the large amount of rain that has fallen in the Charlotte area over the last week or so, the Quail Hollow fairways are very wet. So there is little or no run on the ball.
Conversely, the greens – equipped with a spanking-new sub-air system – are firm. So those who can hit the ball huge distances through the air will have a big advantage through hitting shorter irons into the bouncy greens. That sound you can hear? Rory McIlroy licking his lips.