With the PGA Championship just a couple days away at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, Mo., our golf experts Marty Fenn and Michael Consolo sat down to discuss the big questions heading into Thursday’s first round.
1. What does Tiger Woods need to do to contend?
Consolo: Tiger is so close to winning again, as we’ve seen him earn five Top-10’s this season. However, he can’t seem to get over the hump and win for the first time since 2013. For Tiger to contend this week at the PGA, he needs to drive the ball well. He currently ranks 175th in driving accuracy and with a course like Bellerive, positioning off the tee is so crucial if you want to attack the tough pins. Tiger is Top 10 in strokes-gained around the green and approaching the green, but with his inconsistency off the tee, he ranks 101st in Greens in Regulation. If he can find fairways, this may be the week we can finally say, “Tiger is really back.”
Fenn: Tiger needs to buckle up and find confidence in his driver. Bellerive is nearly 200 full yards longer than Carnoustie, and whereas Tiger was able to blast that driving iron down the dry fairways at Carnoustie, he will not be able to do so this week. The driver will be out of the bag more frequently, and he must hit fairways on Thursday and Friday to hope to stay in contention for the weekend. The other question mark is the putter. Tiger made headlines before The Open by electing to swap out his classic Scotty Cameron for a Taylor Made look, which has seen mixed results as evidenced by a shaky performance at the Bridgestone last weekend. One of the biggest reasons for Tiger’s dominant stretch in the 2000s was his reputation as arguably the best putter ever. He ranks a modest 29th on Tour this season with 28.50 putts per round, but ranks just 136th putting inside of 10 feet. With how well Tiger is striking the ball with his irons and scrambling around the greens, he must convert those shorter putts in order to have a chance this week.
2. Can Rickie Fowler finally get over the hump and win his first major?
Consolo: With nine top-10’s–including three runner-up finishes–in his major championship career, Fowler is constantly knocking on the door. We watched Fowler play the best major of his career with weekend scores of 65 and 67 at Augusta, but he ran into red-hot Patrick Reed and lost by one stroke. In order for Rickie to finally win that first major this week at Bellerive, he must do two things. Firstly, he must score on moving day. Fowler went 73, 69, 65 on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday at Shinnecock, which was -3 for the tournament. However, an 84 on Saturday took him completely out of contention. At the Open, Rickie opened with 70-69, placing him at -3 and three back of the lead. A 73 on Saturday then dropped him to -1 while the leaders went the other way to -9, making Sunday a formality for Fowler once again. Fowler puts himself right there, and if he can show up on Saturday like we saw him do at Augusta (65), he’s going to have a shot.
Perhaps most importantly, he has to drive the ball better. Rickie currently ranks 68th on Tour in Strokes Gained off the tee, by far his worst statistic. He’s Top 50 in all other major categories which include putting, around the green and approaches. Coming to a long course in Bellerive which will sit at 7500+ yards, Rickie (like Tiger) must drive the ball well to be among those at the top of the leaderboard on Sunday.
Fenn: He has to relax. The scores on moving day might be indicative of some pressure settling in for Fowler, but he just has to play his game. His Players victory on the fourth playoff hole in 2015 is evidence that he can perform in the big moments, but he needs to find that swagger at the start of the weekend. He has the sixth-lowest scoring average on Tour this season, so he should be right there in the mix again.
3. Which U.S. golfer has the biggest statement to make for being picked to the Ryder Cup team?
Consolo: Webb Simpson
It has been a great season for Webb so far, as he captured his first win since 2013 at the coveted Players Championship and has notched six top-10’s which include four in the top five. Simpson currently holds the eighth spot and last automatic bid for the U.S. team. He also holds a 49-point lead over Bryson DeChambeau, but with 4,000 points awarded to the winner at Bellerive, that lead is hardly safe. If Webb wants to capitalize on a great season and head to Paris, success this week is crucial.
Fenn: Bryson DeChambeau
It is highly likely that Jim Furyk will make Tiger and Phil Mickelson his captain’s picks, so DeChambeau has some work to do to secure the auto-bid. The 24-year-old was the winner at the Memorial, and has seven top-10’s this season. His charisma and unorthodox style would undoubtedly make him one of the characters to watch in the Ryder Cup, but he must be better with the flat iron this week (ranked 112th in putts per round) if he hopes to play his way onto the team.
4. How will the expected high humidity and temperatures affect play?
Consolo: With word that greens will be slower than planned due to the weather, we’re going to see a lot of birdies from the players this week. Putting won’t be as tough as a typical major championship, and we’re going to see low scores as a result. Jason Day’s PGA Championship record of -20 in 2015 at Whistling Straits will be tough to beat, but I’d bet someone gets close this week.
Fenn: The greens should be extremely soft due to some precipitation in the area this week, which should make the pins slightly more gettable than they otherwise might be under normal conditions. However, I’ll disagree with Michael with respect to the putting. A lot of players struggled with the slower surfaces at Carnoustie during The Open, and I could easily see the same scenario playing out at Bellerive. Heat can also factor into fatigue, so I expect the morning groups to score lower than the players going out in the afternoon.
5. Pick to win/dark horse
Consolo’s pick to win: Dustin Johnson
‘DJ’ is poised to win his second major, and he is my pick this week at Bellerive. With his missed cut at The Open and T-59th at the WGC Match Play aside, Johnson hasn’t finished outside the top 20 all season. He’s won three times this year – with two of those in his last five starts – and he leads the tour in scoring average (68.6) and total strokes gained (2.729). His game is suited for success this week thanks to his average driving distance of 315.3 yards. DJ has the confidence and composure to become a multi-major champion, and this week he’ll get it done.
Dark Horse: Tony Finau
After a long path through PGA Tour Canada and the Web.com Tour, Finau is finally blossoming into one of golf’s best. Although he has just one PGA Tour win which came at the Puerto Rico open in 2016, Finau has played well at the majors this year, with a T-10 at the Masters and a solo 5th place finish in the U.S. Open. I like Finau this week to play well and have a shot to win for two main reasons. Bellerive will benefit the long hitters, and Finau is currently third in driving distance on Tour (317.2 yards). Finau currently ranks 107th in Strokes Gained putting. However, with word that the humidity and heat will cause the greens to be rolling slower than planned, this stat will be less exposed, benefiting Tony greatly.
Fenn’s pick to win: Rory McIlroy
McIlroy has three runner-up finishes this year–including at The Open–to go along with a victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which ended an 18-month drought on Tour. McIlroy is first in driving distance (319.8 yards), and eighth in putts per round (28.14). McIlroy has played his best over the weekend this season and has been in the final group three times, including the Masters and last year at Bridgestone. But the main reason fans should be paying attention to Rory this week? He said that Bellerive reminds him of Valhalla, where he won his last major championship in 2014. McIlroy could set the tone on Thursday in the featured group with Woods and last year’s PGA Championship winner, Justin Thomas.
Dark Horse: Tommy Fleetwood
It almost feels unfair to consider the 27-year-old Englishman a “dark horse” because of his steady play this season (ranked 23rd in the FedEx Cup standings), but I’ll still do it because he has yet to win on the PGA Tour despite six victories on the European Tour. Fleetwood finished as the runner-up in the U.S. Open after firing a final-round 63, which tied the course record at Shinnecock Hills. Fleetwood ranks in the top five in both total Strokes Gained and scoring average, and is 20th in driving distance. He has finished no worse than 17th in a major this season, and I would not be surprised at all to see Fleetwood’s name at the top of the leaderboard when all is said and done on Sunday.
Who is your pick to come away with the Wanamaker Trophy? Let us know in the comments below!