Sat. Jun 22nd, 2024

Scheffler, McIlroy or Koepka? Can Tiger’s body hold up? Here’s what to watch for at Valhalla

By admin May19,2024

The second major championship of the year is upon us, and with it comes a tough test at Valhalla, where the long, narrow and wet golf course will test the world’s best this week for the first time since 2014.

Between the three players who arrive in Louisville with the best odds to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy, the continuing storyline of Tiger Woods‘ endurance and a couple of other major winners trying to make history (both with LIV and the PGA Tour), Valhalla is again primed to provide a fitting setting for what could be another dramatic PGA Championship.

Here are six storylines we’re watching.

There is little to no doubt as to who the favorites are this week — not only by way of the betting markets but simply from what has gone on in the world of golf the past two months.

Scottie Scheffler has won decisively four times, including his second Masters. Rory McIlroy is coming off back-to-back PGA Tour wins, and Brooks Koepka‘s form is once again peaking at the right time after he won a LIV event in Singapore, the lead-up to his defense of the PGA Championship.

Koepka’s claim to his position as a favorite comes from a combination of his propensity for winning PGA Championships (three and counting) as well as his ability to always rise to the occasion when the courses and competition get tougher. Valhalla will play extremely long (7,609 yards, par 71) and narrow this week, making it prime for Koepka’s skills to shine. Come Sunday, it would not be a surprise to see him atop the leaderboard again.

“When you look at a course like last year and you see who won, Brooks wins and you’re like, yeah, that makes tons of sense,” Max Homa said, likening the type of course Valhalla is to last year’s Oak Hill. “He hits the ball really far; he hits it very straight, and he’s a really, really great iron player.”

No one is a better iron player right now than Scheffler, however. There’s not much you can say about Scheffler and his seeming dominance that hasn’t already been said.

He’s striking the ball better than any player has since prime Tiger Woods — his short game might be the best in the game as well, and his putting continues to improve. Golf’s fickle nature and the sport’s depth of talent are perhaps the only reasons not to pick Scheffler to win every single week he tees it up. Even though he’s a new father and life has already changed plenty, a Scheffler victory on Sunday would be considered the least surprising outcome.

“If he putts awful, then he finishes in top 10,” Woods said of Scheffler. “If he putts decent, he wins. He putts great, he runs away. So, he’s just that good a ball striker and that good an all-around player.”

Even Woods couldn’t contain himself from comparing and contrasting Scheffler with McIlroy. He described them as “two totally different players.”

“I think obviously Scottie’s not as long as Rory and can’t probably separate himself on a golf course like that with pure length, but his ball striking, the amount of greens he hits, he just wears you out that way,” Woods said. “Rory, just the way he’s able to take over a golf course and just overpower it, I kind of remember that back when I was younger, but it’s been a while.”

McIlroy arrives in Louisville with two PGA Tour wins in his two most recent appearances, albeit one of them being in a team format with Shane Lowry. But beyond the successful results, it is the way in which McIlroy has won — with a game that is clearly exuding confidence — that bodes well for his week at the PGA.

McIlroy leads the tour in total driving and is consistently hitting it more than 320 yards these days. More importantly, his approach game looks to be sharper than ever — at Wells Fargo, McIlroy gained more than 6 shots on the field with his approach shots.

As it stands now, even with a field this size and this deep, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who isn’t picking one of these three to add to their major tally come this week. — Paolo Uggetti

Can Tiger’s body hold up?

In what will be his first competitive appearance since making the cut at the Masters and finishing 16-over, Woods will be faced with a tough task on a familiar course. Valhalla Country Club is the site of the dramatic playoff victory Woods secured in 2000 over Bob May; it’s also not the easiest of walks, especially given the added length over the years.

Woods, who arrived Sunday, described the walk Tuesday as being more long than difficult and instead focused on what will be arguably the most important skill on display — not just for him, but for the eventual winner — this week: keeping the ball in the fairway.

Tiger Woods described the walk on Tuesday at Valhalla Golf Club as being more long than difficult. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

“More than anything, just stay out of the rough,” Woods said. “This is a big golf course, and if you get in the rough here, yeah, things could get a little bit sore, but if I drive it well and do the things I need to do and what I did 24 years ago, hopefully it works.”

Despite his poor performance at Augusta, Woods’ walk looked improved and he was able to finish all four rounds, unlike the year prior when he withdrew on Sunday. Homa, who played with Woods during the first two rounds at the Masters, raved about the state of Woods’ game and said he wasn’t “limping too bad.”

Editor’s Picks

2 Related

“His golf game was incredible. Two days I played with him, he hit it great,” Homa said Tuesday. “I very much thought he could win another golf tournament. So I don’t know tank-wise, but he works his ass off and he’s really, really good at golf, so I would put nothing past him at this point.”

Much like he’s said in the past, Woods’ feel for the shots he needs to hit is still there, especially around the greens and with a putter in hand. However, whether his body will not only hold up but execute remains to be seen.

“My body’s OK; it is what it is. I wish my game was a little bit sharper,” Woods said. “Again, I don’t have a lot of competitive reps, so I am having to rely on my practice sessions and getting stuff done either at home or here on-site. But at the end of the day, I need to be ready mentally and physically come Thursday.” — Uggetti

Spieth going for career Grand Slam

McIlroy isn’t the only golfer trying to end a long drought in majors. Jordan Spieth last won one at The Open at Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport, England, in July 2017. This will be his eighth attempt at becoming the sixth golfer to complete the career Grand Slam in the Masters era by winning a Wanamaker Trophy.

This week at Valhalla Golf Club will be Jordan Spieth’s eighth attempt at completing a career grand slam in the Masters era. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

It will be Spieth’s first attempt since turning 30 in July. Both Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan completed the career Grand Slam after turning 30 (Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods were the others to accomplish the feat).

“I mean, I’m aware,” Spieth said. “It’s very cool, but I would take any and all and as many majors as possible regardless of where they come. It’s just kind of a cool thing if you’re able to hold all four. There’s just not many people in the game that have done that, and you have an opportunity to do things that are very unique in the game of golf. That’s what kind of stands out, stands the test of time afterwards.” — Mark Schlabach

Weather forecast doesn’t look great

There was a short weather delay during Tuesday’s practice, and golfers were pulled off the course for less than an hour. It might not be the last one this week.

The forecast calls for a 67% chance of thunderstorms again Wednesday, followed by partly cloudy skies for Thursday’s opening round with temperature highs in the low 80s. There’s a good chance for thunderstorms again Friday, with highs in the low 70s.

The weather at Valhalla Golf Club this week calls for potential thunderstorms on Wednesday and Friday. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

The weekend looks pretty good. There’s a 35% chance of rain Saturday with highs in the low 80s. It will warm up for Sunday’s final round, with highs around 86 degrees and a 20% chance of rain. Winds are expected to blow 7-9 mph throughout the week.

If Valhalla is wet this week and its greens are receptive, longer hitters from the tee figure to have an advantage.

“Well, listen, hitting it further is always an advantage, right?” LIV Golf League captain Jon Rahm said. “There’s a reason why almost generationally the longest or one of the longest players has been the best. Jack [Nicklaus] was the longest, Tiger was the longest, Greg Norman was the longest. Rory, Dustin [Johnson], they have been the longest, right? So, it’s no surprise there.

“It’s as simple as that,” Rahm continued. “It requires maybe a little bit less precision in certain moments and just the ability to have a shorter club in [from] anywhere. I mean, it’s always going to make it a little easier. I don’t think there’s any sport in which more power is detrimental.” — Schlabach

Valhalla is longer

The golf course is about 150 yards longer than it was in 2014, when McIlroy won his fourth major championship victory in near darkness at the PGA Championship.

The most significant changes came on the par-4 opening hole, which was lengthened by 50 yards to 484, and the par-5 18th hole, which went from 542 yards to 570. On No. 18, golfers will have to navigate their way around water on the right and a bunker on the left off the tee, as well as bunkers on the front and back of its massive green. The hole is aptly named “Photo Finish” near the home of the Kentucky Derby.

The par-5 18th hole at Valhalla Golf Club, which is aptly named “Photo Finish,” went from 542 yards to 570. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/PGA of America via Getty Images)

The par-71 course will play 7,609 yards this week, which is a 2% increase from a decade ago.

“It’s gotten bigger,” Woods said. “Gotten a little bit longer. I think they extended six tees since we played in 2014. Opened up some of the areas so there’s more flow, less trees. Definitely different than when we played in 2000. I’m looking forward to one day they say we shortened this hole up, because it seems like every time we come back and play, it’s always getting longer.” — Schlabach

Checking in on LIV golfers

In the middle of continuing negotiations between the PGA Tour and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, 16 LIV golfers will be teeing it up this week. That list features past PGA champions like Koepka, Martin Kaymer and Phil Mickelson as well as Rahm, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Cameron Smith and none other than Talor Gooch.

Gooch, who is ranked 668th in the world, did not qualify to play in the Masters this year and famously said that a McIlroy win at Augusta would require an asterisk given that Gooch, the LIV individual champion in 2023, wasn’t in the field.

Aside from the ridicule that his remarks received, Gooch has missed the cut at three of his past seven major appearances. Although he’s seen his fellow LIV golfers go through local qualifying for both the U.S. Open and the Open Championship, Gooch has refused to do the same in order to play in these events.

Talor Gooch is one of seven LIV players who received a special invitation from the PGA to play in the tournament. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

This week, Gooch is one of seven LIV players who received a special invitation from the PGA to play in the tournament, and plenty of eyes will be on him — and the rest of the LIV cohort — to see how they’ll fare when the world’s best players come together.

Rahm, for example, has remained adamant that his game has not suffered since his departure for LIV and the different schedule that he’s had. Despite a disappointing T-45 finish at Augusta National this year, Rahm has routinely placed in the top 10 at LIV events and said Tuesday he feels good about his game.

“I know it’s smaller fields, but I’ve been playing good golf. It’s just the one major that I played clearly wasn’t great,” Rahm said. “Have I played my best golf? No … when I say I’m not playing my best, just hadn’t had my A-game for a week yet, but I still, I’ve been close to my A-game and B-plus multiple times, so yeah, I’m comfortable [with] how I played this year.”

Even though he is still one of the five best players in the world, it feels like there will be less pressure on Rahm this week than a player such as Gooch, who has chosen to position himself as a contrarian with some of his quotes on the matter. There will be no asterisks, but if Gooch once again misses the cut at a major, his comments will continue to look ill-advised. — Uggetti


By admin

Related Post