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USPGA Championship preview

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It’s time for the fourth and final major of the 2017 golf season, as the players head to Charlotte, North Carolina for the USPGA Championship. Quail Hollow will play host for the first time at a major championship, as it also readies to host the 2021 Presidents Cup. Quail Hollow has been a favourite of the players in recent years, hosting the Wells Fargo Championship (previously known as the Quail Hollow Championship and Wachovia Championship) since 2003. Due to the preparation required to be ready for this year’s PGA Championship the Wells Fargo Championship was moved to Eagle Point in Atlanta this May.

There are several interesting story-lines this week, none more so than the chance for Jordan Spieth to complete the major grand-slam at just 24 years of age. Due to being born in July, Spieth would actually be the youngest to complete the grand slam, should he do it next week at Quail Hollow, as Tiger Woods was also 24 when he did the same in 2000 but was nearing 25 whereas Spieth turned 24 just after winning at Birkdale.

It is fine margins and he still has to get the job done, but if he does he will certainly take another huge step to etching his name firmly into golfing history. His spot in the history books is pretty much solidified anyway, but beating Tiger to the grand slam will ensure he is always mentioned in the same breath of the legends of the game.

Spieth has only ever played at Quail Hollow once competitively, finishing 32nd on his Wells Fargo debut in 2013 but with the greens changing from Bentgrass to Bermuda after the tournament that week and the modified layout (more on that later) it should pose a different challenge to years gone by.

The Course and what it will take to win the 2017 USPGA Championship

Quail Hollow Club, 7600 Yards, Par 71

This course, which we know well as it has hosted the Wells Fargo Championship (and the other names it has gone by) since 2003, but this week we will see a different course to what we are accustomed to.

Hole 1 has been lengthened dramatically, changing to a 540-yard Par-4 which doglegs to the right. To allow this change, hole 2 was eliminated and a whole new par-3 has been built. Hole 5 which has always been a Par-5 is now a Par-4 which like the new-look 1st also doglegs to the right. Fairway bunkers have also been added to hole #11 to again make it a tougher proposition. All in all this should make this a tougher golf course than it has been in recent years, with the Bermuda grass across the whole course potentially having a massive effect on the shots played, especially from the rough and around the greens. The rough doesn’t look to penal at this stage, but as ever it is beneficial to play from the short stuff.

Key Stats

Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee – It will be advantageous to get it a long way off the tee, due to lengthening of the course, but you also want to be finding the fairway and setting up good approaches and this is the optimum way to track how a player is doing with their tee shots. A fair bit of this stat is based on Driving Distance so if one of the players you like is short off the tee but excels in other key areas, he may well be ok this week.

Strokes Gained: Approach-The-Green – This is another key stat as you want to be hitting plenty of greens, but you also need to be getting close to the hole, this stat couples Greens in Regulation with Proximity to the Hole amongst others areas.

Ball Striking – Total Driving combined with Greens in Regulation will come into play this week, as you will often here “this is a Ball Strikers course” and Quail Hollow slots right into that category. Again Total Driving is based on a players distance as well as their accuracy, but this is a course where long hitters will have an easier task. Being a long way down the fairway gives you a better chance of getting close to the hole with your approaches and that is highlighted here.

Leading Contenders

Rory McIlroy (7/1) – If this event wasn’t going to be hard enough as it is, the rest of the field will now have to contend with an in-form Rory McIlroy, who is not only a two-time PGA Championship winner but also a two-time winner at this course. McIlroy won the Wells Fargo Championship in both 2010 and 2015 and has four more top-10’s in the event in six starts. He missed the cut in 2011, but his worst finish otherwise at this course is 10th. After a T4 at the Open Championship and his T5 finish at the atWGC Bridgestone Invitational last week, he is certainly a worthy favourite.

Jordan Spieth (9/1) – As previously mentioned, he is going for the career grand-slam and it would be naive to say that he cannot do it this week. The 24 year-old continues to amaze us golf fans with his ability to win, especially in events as big as these. Spieth has endured mixed fortunes in this event, missing his first two cuts before finishing 2nd at Whistling Straits in 2015 and T13 again last year. The only reason he is not favourite this week is because McIlroy has such great course form at Quail Hollow and he will head into the week full of confidence, despite an indifferent week at Firestone.

Dustin Johnson (12/1) – A man who has really suffered after an amazing start to the year is World No.1, Dustin Johnson. Johnson was unlucky not to win the PGA Championship back in 2010, receiving a two-stroke penalty in the final-round, which cost him a place in the play-off with Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer. Six years on, Johnson finally got his first major win at the U.S. Open and he only looked forward from there. Following that win at the U.S. Open last June he has won five times, including three WGC’s. Johnson failed to defend his title at Firestone last week but closed with a 66 to finish an otherwise average week on a high. He has played Quail Hollow three times in the past, but he has not played there since 2011 and is a much different player these days. Two missed cuts and a 29th in those three starts do not bode well, but the course has changed dramatically and the extra length only plays to his strengths.

Hideki Matsuyama (14/1) – After blitzing the field on Sunday at Firestone, shooting a 61 to take down the WGC Bridgestone, Matsuyama will head into Quail Hollow full of confidence. Matsuyama has now won six times worldwide (seven if you include the Hero World Challenge), since February last year and he could well end the year as World No.1. With four of those wins coming on the PGA Tour, and two of them being WGC’s, he is certainly proving his ability to win on the biggest of stages. He has trending form at Quail Hollow, finishing 38th on debut before a 20th place finish in 2015 and an 11th in 2016. The new changes will not affect his chances and given the form he is in again right now, he is right up there with McIlroy and Spieth in terms of favouritism. Following his win on Sunday night, I think it is fair to say he has now the outright candidate for “best player without a major win”, edging Rickie Fowler to that mantle. He became the fourth player, alongside Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas to have won three times on the PGA Tour this season and I can see him winning again before the season is out.

Rickie Fowler (18/1) – As mentioned above, Fowler is alongside or possibly now just behind Matsuyama in terms of “best player without a major” and he will be looking forward to playing at Quail Hollow this week, a course he has won at before (2012). As well as his win, Fowler also has a 4th (2016) and a 6th (2010 – his debut) at this course, so if he could have chosen a course to get his first major win, this may well be up there. Of course there have been changes made and like the rest of the field this will be new to him, but course form should still hold up to a certain extent this week, especially if a player is in form, which Fowler is. Fowler has five top-10’s in his last seven starts and also won the Honda Classic back in February, so it has been another memorable season for the young American. He needs to get a major win to really put himself at that next level and given how close he has come on numerous occasions, it would take a brave man to bet against him, each time he pegs it up at any one of the four. Despite two seasons passing since, the 2014 season where he finished top-5 in all four majors will still be fresh in the memory and with finishes of T11, T5 and T22 in the first three majors so far this year, he’ll be expected to contend again.

Here are my picks for the 2017 USPGA Championship.

Rickie Fowler 18/1 (Ladbrokes 6 places ¼ odds, Betfair 8 places 1/5 odds) 2pts e/w:

Once again I find myself really sweet on Fowler’s chances, and whilst I was convinced the Open was his best shot in a long time, Quail Hollow gives him another good shot to capture that elusive first major title.

A winner at the course in 2012 and a winner already this year, all signs are positive for the man who keeps on producing good results. He looks in total control of his game and just needs to cut a few costly bogeys out of his week to really contend again this week.

It is still hard at this point to predict the winning score this week, given the series of changes made to the course but he has had the goods here in the past and the majority of the course will be the same as it has been in the past.

A 4th here last year suggests the change to Bermuda greens did not bother Fowler, and I struggle to see this week panning out without him involved over the weekend. With Matsuyama, McIlroy and Spieth looking so strong, it is hard for anyone to topple them but Fowler is one player that is certainly capable of doing just that.

It is important to remember that when Fowler won here in 2012, it was under the immense pressure of seeking his first PGA Tour win and also came courtesy of a play-off of which McIlroy was involved. Fowler bettered both McIlroy and D.A. Points that week, birdieing the 18th hole in sudden-death.

Fowler has since won five times across the PGA and European Tour’s and is a regular feature on major leaderboards. Barring his T3 at the 2014 renewal, his record at this major isn’t the best but he looks to have taken yet another step with his game this season and I truly believe he can win almost every time he tees it up. It takes a special player to have that belief, as only the world’s elite fill you with that confidence, but he is definitely amongst that list, even without that major title.

Statistically Fowler ranks 49th in Strokes Gained Off-The-Tee and 14th in Strokes Gained: Approach-The-Green which are two of the key areas this week. Fowler’s most impressive numbers are his ranking in Strokes Gained: Putting (1st) and Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green (11th). Fowler also ranks 13th in Ball Striking and with his well rounded Strokes Gained numbers ranks him 2nd in Strokes Gained: Total, highlighting how good his game is in general this season.

After a slow start at Firestone last week, Fowler fired rounds of 67/66 to climb inside the top-10 (9th), continuing his good form and hopefully taking momentum to Charlotte this week. At 18/1 he is just that touch bigger than the favourites, but I am hoping his previous win at the course will give him the confidence to take this championship in his stride.

Daniel Berger 66/1 (Ladrbrokes 6 places ¼ odds, 7 places WilliamHill 1/5 odds) 1pt e/w:

Daniel Berger proved once again what an exceptional talent he is when he successfully defended the FedEx St.Jude Classic in June. He went on to miss the cut on his next start at the U.S. Open but has played well again since.

In his four starts since missing the cut at Erin Hills, Berger has finished 2nd, 5th, 27th and 17th, The 2nd came at the Travelers Championship followed by a T5 finish at the John Deere Classic, the week before the Open Championship. A second-round 76 cost Berger a real chance of finishing inside the top-5 at Birkdale, ultimately having to settle for a modest T27. A solid four rounds at Firestone followed, which led to a T17 finish there but a real low round was absent from Berger’s four scorecards last week.

Berger has two starts at the Wells Fargo Championship, finishing 28th on debut in 2015 before improving in 2016 with a 17th, so there is an expectation for him to improve again on his third start at Quail Hollow, even with the changes to the course taken into account.

Despite failing to impress so far in the US PGA Championship (MC-T73 in two starts), Berger has big finishes at some other top events, finishing T10 on his Masters debut in 2016, T11 and T2 in his two starts at the WGC HSBC Champions, as well as a T9 at last year’s Players Championship. Berger has also impressed in the FedEx Cup play-offs, finishing 2nd and 10th in two starts at the BMW Championship as well as T12 at the Deutsche Bank Championship. Simply put, I think he has the game for the biggest of stages, even if his results in this event so far don’t reflect that.

Berger only ranks 44th in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee, but he ranks an impressive 6th in Strokes Gained: Approach-The-Green, 24th in Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green and 26th in Strokes Gained: Putting, all equalling a rank of 11th in Strokes Gained: Total. He also ranks 27th in Ball Striking, another positive sign.

Given his form and the fact he has added his second win in successive years earlier this season, I think he is ready to make the step up and really contend in these major championships. At 66/1 you are getting a young player with a huge amount of talent, who is still yet to reach the peak of his potential.

Zach Johnson 80/1 (Ladbrokes 6 places ¼ odds Betfair 8 places 1/5 odds) 1pt e/w:

Like Fowler I am also sticking with Zach Johnson for the second major in a row. The two-time major winner played well enough at Birkdale (14th) before finishing 2nd behind a ridiculously impressive, Matsuyama at Firestone.

He does not play at Quail Hollow every year, but in the starts he has made he has yielded some good results. Johnson finished 14th here in 2014 after the changes were made to the greens and before that had finished 6th in 2011 and 11th in 2009.

The changes made this week don’t play into Johnson’s hands, with the course being lengthened but as we know Johnsons is capable of winning and contending at courses that appear too long for him. With wins at Augusta and St. Andrews as well as contending last week at the 7,400 yard Firestone, it would be naïve to rule Johnson out based on the length of the course.

After a very slow start to the season, Johnson looks to have picked it up when it matters most, heading into the business-end of the season. In his last three starts he has finished 5th (John Deere Classic), 14th (Open Championship) and 2nd last week at the Bridgestone, so he has got it rolling once again.

Johnson led the field in Strokes Gained: Putting last week at Firestone, which always bodes well heading into major week and if the rest of the game clicks this week, he could well get his third major victory and be just one step away (U.S. Open) from the Grand Slam.

Looking purely at his stats throughout the season, Johnson has been having a terrible year, ranking 72nd in Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green, 86th in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee and 119th in Strokes Gained: Approach-The-Green. His short game stats (25th SG: Around-The-Green and 44th SG: Putting) are his only real saving grace statistically, but should his upturn in form continue, these stats should improve greatly. His short game has always been his bread and butter, so he just needs to up his game across the board to get his 13th PGA Tour victory.

At 80/1 I am happy to chance that he can keep this recent run of form going and contend in a major he already has three top-10’s at, all of which have come in his last seven starts in the event.

Tony Finau 100/1 (General) 0.5pt e/w:

Big-hitting Tony Finau looks the perfect fit for this course and whilst he only has one PGA Tour win to his name, he has looked impressive since securing his PGA TOUR card back in 2014. He won on the Web.com in 2014 and despite missing out on a win in his rookie season on the PGA Tour in 2015, he managed to make the breakthrough a year later.

In 2017, Finau has garnered four top-5’s and two more top-9 finishes, so he looks to be close to winning form once again. It is a tough ask to follow up your first and only PGA Tour win with a win at a major championship, but this course and event presents him with a good chance to do so.

Finau qualified for the 2015 U.S. Open and US PGA Championship and managed finishes of T14 and T10 respectively, which were great efforts in his first two major starts. He missed the cut in both these events in 2016, but managed a T18 finish on his Open Championship debut that year, and followed that up with a T27 at Birkdale this year. That was his first major start of the season but looking at his first few starts at major championships, it looks like he has the game to contend at them for years to come.

He has not finished outside the top-40 since his last missed cut at the Players Championship and his last three starts read T7 (Greenbrier Classic), T27 (Open Championship and T5 (RBC Canadian Open) so he is coming into this week with plenty of form.

In terms of course form, Finau has done ok in limited starts at Quail Hollow, finishing 16th and 28th on his two starts there in 2015 and 2016.

Statistically this has been a very impressive year for Finau so far, ranking 4th in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee, 6th Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green and 30th in Strokes Gained: Approach-The-green. In terms of Strokes Gained: Around-The-Green (55th) and Strokes Gained: Putting (143rd) his numbers are a lot more modest, but he ranks 12th in Strokes Gained: Total, so his game generally is in great shape.

In terms of approaches, a ranking of 5th in Greens in Regulation is very impressive and this has helped him rank 10th in Ball Striking however he ranks a lowly 120th in Proximity To Hole, highlighting an area of his game, of which he needs to improve. Not getting close enough to the hole causes problems of course and puts a strain on the putter.

Given the length of the course it is good to have a bigger hitter on board and Finau fits that bill, ranking 6th in Driving Distance on the PGA Tour. Anything in the three-figure mark about a player with Finau’s upside is worth a second look and I think he can go well here, especially if he finally gets the putter rolling. Even when finishing 5th in Canada last time out, Finau only ranked 55th in Strokes Gained: Putting, losing strokes on the field (-.405) and unfortunately this is definitely his Achilles Heel.

Ian Poulter 125/1 (Betfred 6 places ¼ odds WilliamHill 7 places 1/5 odds) 0.5pt e/w:

After injury derailed him in 2016, Poulter was also on the verge of losing his card earlier this season, but after Brian Gay pointed out an error made by the PGA Tour, they both retained their playing privileges and were exempt into the Players Championship.

It was at Sawgrass where Poulter really took the bull by the horns and whilst he ultimately three strokes adrift of eventual winner, Si-Woo Kim it was a very impressive performance all the same. This 2nd came two starts after finishing T11 at the RBC Heritage so his game was looking in good shape. A host of mediocre finishes followed but he was still playing some good golf, before he arrived in Scotland.

After putting himself in a good position to win over the first three days, Poulter flattered to deceive on the Sunday falling from a share of the lead to T9 due to a final round 74. A T14 finish at the Open Championship and a 3rd at the Canadian Open followed for the Englishman and he will be hoping for another big week at the final major of the year.

Poulter played the Wells Fargo last year for the first time since 2009, when he finished 5th but it was nowhere near as impressive on his return, finishing 61st last year. He’s in completely different form this week though and more importantly healthy. With a 5th place finish at the course in the memory bank, he may well have the confidence to push on and contend for the second straight start.

The 41-year old played very solidly at Birkdale and that 3rd in Canada further verifies his game is in good shape. A final round 64 there was to thank for his good finish and in the end he finished just one shot shy of making into the play-off with Jhonattan Vegas and Charley Hoffman.

Statistically Poulter is enjoying a very decent season, ranking 1st in Strokes Gained: Around-The-Green, 4th in Strokes Gained: Approach-The-Green and 10th in Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green which is all good enough to rank 20th in Stroked Gained: Total. His numbers in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee (125th) and Strokes Gained: Putting (152nd) are of course disappointing, but he ranked 2nd in Strokes Gained: Putting at the Canadian Open on his last start so he is trending in the right direction in that respect.

As Poulter is not long off the tee he really is going to have to play exceptionally well in all other key areas to get it done this week, but given his impressive strokes gained numbers across most of the board, I am confident he can do it here.

Poulter has two top-10’s in this event, finishing T3 in 2012 and T9 in 2006 and he will be hoping for more of the same this week. At 41, he has plenty of major experience behind him and given his T14 finish in his only major start this season, there is plenty of reason for optimism. He has made 42/54 cuts in major championships, posting 8 top-10’s which include a 2nd and two 3rd’s, so he knows how to compete on the big stage.

Total Points Staked this week: 10

Profit/Loss for 2017: -22