ST. LOUIS — This PGA Championship opens with more questions than your average major championship. Of course, as usual, they begin with Tiger Woods and whether his game — and his body — are ready for the year’s last major championship. But he’s not alone. Can Jordan Spieth finish off the career Grand Slam? Will soggy Bellerive hold up under hot conditions? At 6:55 a.m. local time Thursday morning, we start getting answers.
Will Tiger’s body hold up?
Not only does Tiger Woods’ game need to hold up this week at Bellerive if he is going to end his decadelong major championship drought, but perhaps more critically his body needs to hold up. Woods admitted he is dealing with inflammation, which acted up last week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he struggled to a pair of 73s on the weekend as he drifted down the leaderboard.
“There’s going to be certain days that I’m just not going to have the speed and the flexibility and the movement that I once did,” Woods said. “I’m 42 now, and I’ve had four back surgeries. So things are going to be different from day to day, and it’s just about managing it.”
Another factor could be the weather. The forecast is calling for heat and humidity all four days, with the temperature hovering around 90 degrees. More problematic, though, is the possibility of thunderstorms on the weekend, which could lead to delays. That could cause Woods to start and stop, which will put more strain on his back.
“There are a lot of different layers to what Tiger has to go through to win again,” Rory McIlroy said. “First of all, he had to learn how to move again. He had to learn how to swing. Geez, I mean, 18 months ago the guy couldn’t walk. He was in bed. He just had his fourth back surgery, so to get to this point is a phenomenal achievement already.
“Even though he’s won 14 of these things, you still, if you haven’t done it for a while, you still have to relearn a few things, and I think he’s going through that stage. But as we saw at [The Open], he’s right there, which is an unbelievable achievement. To think that he’s already won his 14 majors with basically three to four different golf swings. This is sort of his fifth. So if he could go ahead and win another major with his fifth golf swing, I mean, that’s unbelievable.”
For Jordan Spieth, it’s how he starts
If Jordan Spieth is going complete the career Grand Slam with a win this week at the PGA Championship, he’s going to have to get through Thursday. That might sound simple, but for Spieth that has been extremely hard.
A solid Thursday could put him in position to get that one major missing from his résumé.
“I think I was probably a little more anxious last year,” Spieth said. “I feel somewhat under the radar this year. I’ve kind of felt that way a lot this year, I don’t mind it. At the same time, this tournament will always be circled until I’m able to hopefully win it someday. It will always be circled to complete the career Grand Slam, which will ultimately achieve a lifelong goal for me. So certainly emphasis in my head on it, but nothing overpowering, nothing that takes over once I start on the first tee, just more going into the week.”
McIlroy knows the feeling. Like Spieth, he’s missing one major. For McIlroy, it’s the Masters.
“You have to put it out of your head that what winning this golf tournament would mean in terms of your legacy and your place in the game,” McIlroy said. “I can probably relate a little bit to what he’s feeling, but it’s a great position to be in. Not many people have a chance to do something like that.
“If [Spieth does] win this week, you’re going to join a very, very elite club. I’m sure Jordan feels a little bit different this week than he does the other three majors, but that’s normal.”
Make birdies — lots and lots of birdies
Bellerive was pounded by rain on Tuesday. More is expected on the weekend. Given the soft conditions, it’s going to take a low score to claim the Wanamaker Trophy.
“So I think you’ll see guys shoot some low scores, given when they get into trouble you’re not going to see that many bogeys or doubles,” Spieth said.
History already has proved that the PGA is the easiest of the four majors.
This is not the U.S. Open or The Open, where hard, windy, dry conditions at both Shinnecock Hills and Carnoustie made stopping the ball in the proper spot a challenge. At Bellerive, that won’t be a problem.
“You’re not going to see wedge shots spin a lot,” McIlroy said. “You’re going to see them stop dead. You’re also going to see a 6-iron stop dead. It’s going to be quintessential target golf. That’s what it is this week. Where your ball lands is where it’s going to really stay.”
Unlike the U.S. Open, at which the USGA does everything in its power to keep the winning score near even par, the PGA has no such mandate.
“[The PGA of America is] not going to go out there and try and prove anything or do anything — or mess up a course.” Spieth said.
This week, that likely means very low numbers.
“I don’t think they really care whether the winning score is 5 under par or 20 under par,” McIlroy said.
Who has the advantage?
Woods has an idea on whom he thinks Bellerive’s soft conditions favor.
“If anything, it favors a guy who hits the ball high,” he said. “Because we’re not going to get any run. It’s not going to dry out the rest of the week. It’s going to be hot, it’s going to be wet, and fortunately, I’m one of the guys who hits the ball high and gets the ball up in the air.”
That group would also include world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who is sixth on the PGA Tour in driving distance at 315.3 yards.
“I feel like the course sets up well for me,” Johnson said. “The way the course is playing, I hit pretty much all the clubs in my bag.”
Not everything is perfect at Bellerive
Keep an eye on the greens. The soft conditions could make putting dicey.
“I don’t think they’re going to be the smoothest of greens that we played on, but everyone’s got to play them,” Woods said. “We’re going to have some putts where we hit good putts and they’re going to kind of wobble off-line.”
McIlroy is less concerned.
“In fairness, the greens, they look a little worse than they actually putt,” McIlroy said.
Spieth, meanwhile, wasn’t in love with how the PGA handled the rough at Bellerive.
“The rough’s a little interesting to me,” he said. “They mowed down-grain for a couple yards and then into the grain and then down-grain and then into the grain. I’m not sure if it was for aesthetics or what, but that makes it a bit luck-based when you hit the ball into the rough.”
When the key players hit the course
For a complete list of tee times and scores, click here.
The smart money
Johnson is the betting favorite heading into the week. If he pulled off the win, he would be the first top-ranked player to win a major since Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open. Still, Johnson stands at the top of the list, according to Westgate Las Vegas Superbook
Even the defending champion could not stop praising Johnson.
“The thing about DJ is he has no weakness in his game,” said Justin Thomas, who won the PGA last year at Quail Hollow. “He’s a very, very underrated putter. He makes a lot of putts, even though people maybe don’t talk about it as much.
“He just doesn’t play bad very often. So he’s a person that is very hard to beat.”