PGA – A PREVIEW OF THE 2017 MAJOR CHAMPIONSHIPS

All four of last season’s majors were collected by first-time champions.

And, so far during the early part of 2016-17, we’ve seen several first-timers take home tournament trophies (Cody Gribble, Mackenzie Hughes, Hudson Swafford, and Jon Rahm).

With all this quality and depth of talent on the Tour, it makes me wonder what will happen at the majors this season.

So, I took a quick peek at the upcoming venues and scoped out the emerging storylines.

My conclusion? I have a feeling we’ll see a couple of new champions and perhaps someone going back to back.

MASTERS TOURNAMENT (81st) — AUGUSTA NATIONAL, GEORGIA (APR 6-9)
  • 1934 – First year of the tournament; originally known as the “Augusta National Invitational”.
  • 1939 – The present name of the tournament was adopted.
  • 1949 – The first green jacket was awarded to the champion.
  • 1963 – The tradition began of legendary past champions hitting an honorary tee shot the morning of the first round to commence play.
  • Jack Nicklaus won the most times (6).
  • Arnold Palmer & Tiger Woods won it (4) times.
  • Last Year’s Winner: Danny Willett.

Storylines:

Augusta’s legendary azaleas have already bloomed due to unusually warm weather ahead of spring.  The brilliant colorful flowers are as much analogous with the iconic landscape as are the lush greens and magnolias.  This could be a real pickle for the grounds crew.  Will they bring in replacements?

Arnold Palmer (1929-2016) will be missed at the ceremonial tee as one of the “Big Three” (including Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player).  Last year, he didn’t hit a shot, but was on the course nearby looking on. This year, Palmer will be looking on in spirit for sure.

I’m really high on Hideki Matsuyama becoming the first Japanese man to win a major on the PGA Tour & possibly, the first Masters.  He’s been the best player in the world this season and is peaking right now.  In 9 events so far, he won 3 times and was runner-up 2 times.  At the Masters, Matsuyama T-7 in 2015 and came in 5th in 2016.

Only 5 players in the Masters era have won all 4 majors and Rory McIlroy will probably add to that total by the end of his career. The 27-year-old is only missing this tournament, having won the US Open in 2011, The Open in 2014 and the PGA Championship in 2012 and 2014.  It’s hard to predict if 2017 will be his year as he’s been sidelined with a stress fracture in his rib for several weeks.  However, he said earlier this week that his short game is “as sharp as it has ever felt” (because that was all he could work on while injured).  Hmm…

Phil Mickelson is 46 years old this year.  Jack Nicklaus won his last major at Augusta in 1986 when he was 46 (his 6th Masters).  Regardless, Phil already has 3 green jackets (2004, 2006, 2010). So, he knows what he needs to do to get it done.  Personally, I think he will have many more chances to become the oldest champion to win this event in years to come.

I have theorized that 2013-14 may have been Rickie Fowler‘s best shot at getting a major.  That season he T-5 at the Masters, T-2 at the US Open, T-2 at The Open and T-3 at the PGA and had 10 top 10 finishes.  Since then, he hasn’t looked like the same player. But, Fowler just held on to win the 2017 Honda Open and said after the tournament, “I think this is something we needed going into Augusta. I like this spot we’re in right now.”  So do I.

Justin Rose would look good in green.  Well, at least Vegas thinks so.  He is currently listed as 15-1 odds at winning this year’s Masters.  Actually, I think he has a better chance than that.  I’ve always been a big fan of his playing style for Augusta and thought he would be a multiple major winner on the Tour.  At 35, I won’t say time is running out, but there should be a sense of urgency if he wishes to tack on more big ones beyond the 2013 US Open.  Since 2011, he has not fared worse than T-25 at Augusta.

Critics have come down hard on Sergio Garcia over the years.  For a player with his elite skill set and talent, it’s hard to believe he’s only had 12 top-five finishes in 73 career major starts.  But, I like where he is these days and I won’t rule him out for finally winning his elusive major this year.  With his excellent play as of late and recent win at Dubai, he seems to have put past expectations and the major disappointments behind him.  He said recently, “The hunger is still there.”

Henrik Stenson is my Dad’s gut pick to win this tournament.  He has been very impressed with him since he won The Open last July and had runner-up finishes in the WGC in October and Hero World Challenge at year’s end.  Stenson will turn 41 during the tournament and at this age, maturity is definitely on his side.  Combine that with his gorgeous ball striking and driving accuracy, it could be another major for the Swede.

US OPEN (117th) — ERIN HILLS, WISCONSIN (June 15-18)
  • This will be the first time a US Open is contested in Wisconsin and played on a course owned by one man (Andrew Ziegler).
  • Erin Hills will be the 6th public access course to host the championship. It’s also the first par-72 Open venue since 1992.
  • The winner will receive $2.16 million, a bump from last year’s $1.8 million. The total purse is an estimated $12 million, with makes the US Open now the richest tournament in pro golf. (Players & PGA – $10.5 million; Masters – $10 million)
  • Most US Open wins: Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus (4).
  • Most runner-up finishes: Phil Mickelson (6).

Last Year’s Winner:  Dustin Johnson

Storylines:

If you haven’t scoped out Erin Hills yet, do yourself a favor now.  The course is located in the rural countryside of Wisconsin on 652 acres of what is referred to as the “Kettle Moraine”, a large glacially formed region that has extraordinary undulations literally etched into the earth by glaciers.  Luckily, the architects seemed to have kept it simple and let the virtually treeless landscape shine through the wide open vistas.

Reportedly, Erin Hills was designed to host this prestigious event and ultimately, to play “fast and firm”.  So, if the wind blows across the vast landscape and the conditions are dry, this year’s championship should be a real test of the players’ aptitudes.

Which players will like this course?  If it plays near the 8,000 yards as is estimated, the course will favor the very long hitters and this will likely be the big story for this tournament.  However, the rough is going to be very gnarly and long and the rolling landscape could provide a similar challenge to Chambers Bay in 2015.  Also, since the course is pretty new (opened in 2006), many players have not been there before.

Dustin Johnson seems to have picked up where he left off from 2015-16 when he started with six top-10 finishes in his first ten events, won the US Open, and won both the PGA Player of the Year and PGA Tour Player of the Year awards.  So far in 2016-17, he’s had two top-10 finishes in his first four events and won the Genesis Open which vaulted him to #1 in the world rankings.  If that putter keeps going and he holds his nerve, the big bomber with the deft touch could pull this off 2 years in a row.

Will Phil Mickelson finally get this monkey off his back?  He’s had 6 runner-up finishes, but has never won the US Open.  Playing at Erin Hills may be a good opportunity for him since he still has the distance and ability to make lots of birdies and is putting beautifully lately.  We’ll see how things roll along for lefty through June before we make any bold predictions, but I’m crossing my fingers for him.

It’s just about coming together for Adam Scott this season.  A look at his stats show he is doing well in almost every category.  When he hits his stride, he could win anywhere.  Last season, he never did better than T-18 at the 4 majors, but I have a feeling he’ll be back this year and like this course.

THE OPEN (146th) — ROYAL BIRKDALE, ENGLAND (July 20 -23)
  • More Championship & International events have been held at Royal Birkdale than any other course in the world since World War II.
  • The Open returns here for the first time since 2008, but has hosted the event 9 other times (1954, 1961, 1965, 1971, 1976, 1983, 1991, 1998, 2008).
  • There are currently 9 courses in The Open rota: (4 – Scotland; 4 – England; 1 – Northern Ireland).
  • Most Open victories: Harry Vardon (6).
  • Most runner-up finishes: Jack Nicklaus (7); But he won it 3 times (1966, 1970, 1978).

Last Year’s Winner: Henrik Stenson, Royal Troon (Scotland)

Storylines:

The uniqueness of this course and the history of the landscape play an important role in how it challenges players.  Royal Birkdale is a true links course on the Northwest coast of England where unpredictable blustery winds coming off the Irish Sea can wreak havoc on the scorecard.  On the other hand, it is considered the most “fair” of the other links courses in the NW rota (along with Royal Lytham and Royal Liverpool).  Players just have to hit the wide flat fairways and have a decent view of the hole ahead for a chance.  Golfers who would naturally prevail here are those who remain ultra patient, have good feel, and are super confident.

In this regard, I like Justin Rose or Paul Casey, given that they are both Englishmen playing well now and who both know how to handle the weather this region can dish out.

Other players who have shown to do exceptionally well in the wind include Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama, Jimmy Walker, Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia.

Of course, Rory McIlroy also excels on links courses.  If he remains healthy and stays on track, he could put another claret jug on his mantle.

PGA CHAMPIONSHIP (99th) — QUAIL HOLLOW CLUB, CHARLOTTE NC (Aug 10 -13)
  • The first PGA Championship was held on Oct 1916 in Bronxville, NY and was initially a match play event, but changed to stroke play in 1958.
  • The champion is awarded the Wanamaker Trophy, named for the department store magnate (Rodman Wanamaker (1863-1928)) who owned stores in Philadelphia, NY and Paris. He was one of the founders of the PGA and this championship.
  • The final major of the season is played primarily in the eastern half of the US. Only 10 times has it been contended in the west.  The last time was in 1998. The next time will be 2020 at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco.
  • Most wins: Jack Nicklaus & Walter Hagen (5).
  • Most runner-up finishes: Jack Nicklaus (4).
  • Oldest winner: Julius Boros in 1968 (48 years, 142 days).
  • Youngest winner: Gene Sarazen in 1922 (20 years, 174 days).

Last Year’s Winner:  Jimmy Walker

Storylines:

Quail Hollow is a private course established in 1959.  It has gone through extensive renovations over the years and most recently in 2016 (as part of a plan that began with 2013 renovations).

Those reno plans last year included firming up the greens to contrast the thick rough and the creation of 3 new holes on the front nine and 1 on the back nine – all of which should be an extremely tough test for the players.

This venue is usually the site of the Wells Fargo Championship held every May.  That event was moved to the Eagle Point Golf Club in Wilmington NC while Quail Hollow prepares for the PGA Championship.

Rory McIlroy seems to like Quail Hollow (he won the Wells Fargo Championship in 2010, 2015).  Ironically, in 2015 he broke his own course record from 2010 and destroyed the competition to win with a 21-under 267.  I’m guessing that the USGA doesn’t want double digits under par to be the final score for the PGA Championship, so they are most likely in the process of tinkering with the course to foil someone with the driving ability and talent of McIlroy.

 

 

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