The season’s second major, the US PGA Championship, begins this Thursday at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We look at some of the main storylines heading into the event.
Tiger Woods returns … again
Here we go once more. Woods is back, for the first time since his shock return at last month’s Masters. Back then, following a 47th-place finish in which he clearly - and understandably - ran out of gas, the 15-time major champion would not commit to Southern Hills, offering only the Open Championship as a certainty on his recalibrated calendar.
However, Woods rocked up in Tulsa last month for a recce – he was even, apparently, given course tips from the club’s director of golf – and has been on site already this week getting in the practice rounds. So what sort of Woods will we get? His remarkable comeback at the Masters came 17 months after his last competitive outing, and less than 14 months after a life-threatening car crash.
At Augusta, Woods put on a characteristically impressive display, especially given his reconstructed left leg was visibly hampering him as the week went on. His opening-round 71 was astounding. So to Southern Hills. Woods won there the last time the tournament was staged in Tulsa, in 2007 (the course has undergone a serious revamp since) and the warmer weather should play to his advantage.
Meanwhile, both he and caddie Joe LaCava have spoken this week about Woods being stronger physically, with much more stamina that he displayed at the Masters. Still, at 46 and with still hardly any recent tournament time under his belt, expectations should be tempered.
Jordan Spieth eyes Slam select band
For Rory McIlroy at the Masters, read Spieth at the US PGA Championship. The three-time major champion this week seeks to become only the sixth man to complete the career grand slam, with this tournament the only “big one” he is yet to land. Fortunately for Spieth, he is trending back towards the sort of form that in 2015 made him the game’s leading light, with a win at last month’s RBC Heritage followed by a runner-up finish on Sunday at the AT&T Byron Nelson. Although, he did miss the cut at the Masters.
Still, Spieth has climbed his way back into the world’s top 10 – he is currently 8th – having dipped as low as No 92 early last year. He is, remember, a former world No 1. And Spieth does have form at the tournament: he recorded his finest finish to date in 2015, when he was runner-up to Jason Day (if, granted, that was during Spieth’s peak season).
That the American could triumph at the RBC despite lamentable putting statistics should serve as a warning to his rivals; the fact Southern Hills provides relatively forgiving fairways, and an emphasis on getting up and down from danger, only accentuates the case for Spieth to join that exclusive club. Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Woods could soon have company.
Rory McIlroy out to recapture major might
OK, so we’ve been here before, for what could feel like for ever. McIlroy is now without a major in his past 27 attempts, which at the time felt inconceivable considering he had just won two on the bounce, back in 2014. Of course, the Northern Irishman already has four majors, a stellar haul for most. Yet it is only that his undoubted talent demands more.
Thankfully, for McIlroy, he seems to be coming into form. The former world No 1 finished runner-up at last month’s Masters – his best finish there in 14 appearances - although it was thanks purely to a final-round surge as until then, he never felt in contention. Once more, his opening day's work - a one-over 73 - proved hugely damaging. It continued a theme: McIlroy is a combined 35-over-par in the first round of majors since his most recent success at the 2014 US PGA Championship, compared to 68-under for the final three rounds over the same period.
Obviously, he needs to be much faster out of the blocks. Some solace, though, can be found in his fifth last time out at the Wells Fargo Championship. It speaks of a McIlroy in tune with his game, even if the pressure and expectation will be ratcheted up significantly come Thursday. Eight years without a major is way too long for a golfer of his calibre.
No-show Phil Mickelson casts long shadow
Rather regrettably, Mickelson will not be back to defend the title he won in memorable fashion last year. The American’s two-shot victory at Kiawah Island 12 months ago created history, making Mickelson the oldest major champion ever in the sport, at 50 years old.
However, the time since has been notable only for controversial comments and the apparent courtship of the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf series. Mickelson has not played competitively since February, when those comments were made public and prompted the six-time major winner to announce an indefinite break from the game. He was registered to play this week, only for the PGA of America to confirm his absence on Friday.
Tellingly, Mickelson has yet to speak on record since his hiatus began. Even in absentia, the defending champion has not been far from headlines in the build-up – the PGA of America had earlier expressed concerns his presence would create an unwanted side-show – and that is sure to continue when he emerges finally from the shadows.
That, unsurprisingly, is expected at next month’s inaugural LIV Golf International Series event in England. Yet it remains a sorry state of affairs: Mickelson should have been one of the storylines to celebrate at Southern Hills. Instead, his withdrawal only adds to the sense of unease at present throughout the upper echelons of the sport.