The golfing season is reaching its peak with three major championships in the next eight weeks starting with the 104th PGA Championship in Southern Hills Country Club as four Irish head to Tulsa, Oklahoma all vying for major championship glory.
Rory McIlroy will be looking to arrest a major championship drought of eight years as he bids for a third Wannamaker Trophy while Pádraig Harrington returns after a T-4th finish at Kiawah Island last year. The 2008 PGA Champion is in good form having finished in second place at last week’s Senior major.
Shane Lowry appears better placed than most to launch an assault at his second major title while Seamus Power is making his second major start after a strong showing at Augusta National last month.
There are of course several subplots away from the Irish quartet; Jordan Spieth’s grand slam bid seems realistically alive for the first time since he won the Open Championship in 2017 and of course, the big cat is in town.
Tiger Woods looks a completely different person from what we saw at Augusta National and a healthy Tiger is a dangerous Tiger.
The early days of PGA Championship week were overshadowed by Phil Mickelson’s withdrawal from the tournament. One year on from arguably his greatest triumph, Mickelson has been cast out into the cold and it is a shame he isn’t here to defend his title. What a strange year it has been for golf.
Still, the tournament organisers came biting back with some mouth-watering groupings for the opening 36 holes.
Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth. What a way to open the championship.
McIlroy arrives in flying form after a runner-up finish at the Masters and a fifth-place finish at the Wells Fargo Championship. The world number seven has twice won this event. In 2012 he romped to a dominant eight-stroke victory at Kiawah Island setting a tournament record while he emerged from the darkness at Valhalla to edge Mickelson by a shot in 2014.
The Holywood native does seem well placed to mount a serious challenge towards that elusive fifth major, but a good start is vital. Since the beginning of 2015, Rory is 35-over-par in his opening rounds while he is an aggregate of 68-under for the remaining three rounds.
Playing with Tiger might bring the best out of McIlroy who has a 69.96 scoring average when playing with the fifteen-time major champion.
The 33-year-old is aware of the importance of a good start this week but also keeping big numbers off the card and avoiding the damaging runs that have cost him dearly over the last eight years.
“I think over the past few years, the things that have stopped me from getting in contention or being able to win these majors is big numbers and shooting myself out of it sort of early.
“I can even think back to Augusta, I finished three behind in the end, and I went bogey, double bogey on 10 and 11. On Friday. You go par-par there and all of a sudden there’s those three shots. It doesn’t take much in major championships it’s tiny margins.
“I think the most consistent way to get yourself to be able to have chances to win these major championships is to sort of adopt that conservative strategy. Tiger did it most of his career, and okay, he had a couple of huge wins in there, but a lot of times being conservative with his strategy, letting other guys make the mistakes — pars are pretty good in major championships, and that’s sort of the philosophy that I believe in going forward,” added McIlroy.
Shane Lowry is playing the most consistent golf of his career and now boasts top-5 finishes in all four major championships including winning the 2019 Open Championship. Wins haven’t been frequent but the Clara native has done it on the big stage with a WGC and a win in Abu Dhabi on his CV.
Chipping is going to be crucial this week with the grainy runoff areas and severe slopes on and around the greens and Lowry feels the course suits his game as he returns to action following three weeks off.
“Yeah, look, the guy who wins this week is going to hit 13, 14 greens a day, and he’s going to miss four greens and he’s probably going to get up-and-down a lot of the time. That’s what you’re going to need to do.
“I think a good day around here would probably be 13, 14 greens. So you’re probably going to have four chip shots a day this week and you need to be good with those. It’s not so much — it is obviously you need to be good, but you need to leave yourself in the right spots, as well, around here.
“You get above the hole and get short-sided, you’re going to have a very difficult time. You need to be clever with your approach shots, as well.”
The Offaly man is well placed to challenge for a second major title and first win since the 2019 Open. He has made all his cuts this year and has a runner-up finish at the Honda Classic and a top-3 at the Masters although he did let a win slip through his fingers at the RBC Heritage the following week.
Lowry is in one of the standout groups for the first two rounds alongside Adam Scott and Brooks Koepka.
Pádraig Harrington is fresh off a runner-up finish in the Tradition, a major on the PGA Tour Champions and Southern Hills represents another opportunity for the 50-year-old to try and squeeze one more major out of what has been an incredible career.
The Dubliner came fourth in last year’s PGA Championship and is grouped with two former major champions in Stewart Cink and Jason Dufner.
Harrington has been in steady form as of late with two runner-ups on the Senior circuit and a top-10 on the DP World Tour back in February.
Seamus Power was very impressive at Augusta last month as he secured a T-27th finish on his major championship debut at the Masters.
The Waterford native has long been pencilled in to start at Southern Hills following his breakthrough PGA Tour win at the Barbasol Championship and will play alongside Scott Stallings and Russell Knox who was a late entry into the field.
After a missed cut at the Wells Fargo, Power found some confidence with a top-20 at the AT&T Byron Nelson last week.
Will Rory end the drought? Can Shane break through again? Will Paddy have one last crack at a major championship? Can Tiger do the impossible again and will Spieth complete the set and enter golfing immortality?
Or can Seamus spring a surprise? It’s happened at the PGA Championship before.