Sporting Life

2022-06-04 02:01:29 By : Mr. Alex Song

Find out why Ben Coley is backing Jordan Spieth to complete a career grand slam in this week's US PGA Championship with his in-depth betting preview.

4pts e.w. Jordan Spieth at 18/1 (William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9)

2pts e.w. Hideki Matsuyama at 30/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)

1pt e.w. Brooks Koepka at 40/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)

1pt e.w. Tony Finau at 55/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)

1pt e.w. Daniel Berger at 66/1 (Unibet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)

1pt e.w. Tommy Fleetwood at 80/1 (Betfred, bet365 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)

Sky Bet odds | Paddy Power | Betfair Sportsbook

For the major that for so long felt like an afterthought, last in a line of four and somehow less prestigious than the other three, the PGA Championship sure does feel shrouded in mystery and intrigue this year. Some of it is the bad, 55 Tufton Street kind of mystery, where the only thing known about the answer is that it won't be good. Some of it is the good kind, the young romance kind, the butterflies kind. The sporting kind.

Before golf's descent into chaos, the schedule change which brought this major forward to split the Masters and the US Open had one obvious upside, linking those two more illustrious majors and giving the Open Championship the anchor leg. It does mean we've a lengthy wait from July to the following April, a gap which someone at some stage will plug, but once the Masters comes round it's all systems go for three brilliant months.

And while there are venues, or there would have been venues, which cannot stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Augusta and St Andrews, that is not the case this week. Trump Bedminster had been set to stage the tournament, until the attacks on America and on democracy which took place on January 6, 2021. Many more important things changed the moment the Capitol was breached, but from the smallest ripples came the removal of Bedminster from the PGA Championship rotation, its place going to Southern Hills instead.

What an upgrade it looks to be. Designed by Perry Maxwell and recently restored by Gil Hanse, this course on the outskirts of Tulsa, Oklahoma will be one of the stars of the week and perhaps even the year in golf. Hanse has returned it to something as close as possible to the original architect's vision, removing trees, widening fairways, trimming grass and adding layer upon layer of subtlety to a course which had become dull and unrelenting. Now, it will ask, it will tease, it will give and it will take.

"If we do our job right, then we’ve restored Maxwell and presented a picture that's consistent with what he created and left [chief championships officer of the PGA of America] Kerry Haigh with options that were always part of Maxwell’s design," Hanse told Golf Digest. "Then he can set the golf course up on any given day and in any given conditions so that it challenges the best players in the world."

Those conditions ought to ensure this is one of the more difficult renewals of the major which has at times most resembled a PGA Tour event. Tulsa is famous for its heat, its humidity and its wind, and while the first two will be less significant in May than was the case in June (2001) and August (2007), the latter appears certain to be a factor. It adds volatility to one of the more volatile majors, its propensity to throw up something absurd underlined by that stupendous victory for Phil Mickelson one year ago.

Volatility also comes from the course itself. Long on the scorecard as a par 70 listed as playing 7,556 yards, scoring opportunities are hard to find, even if the 17th hole is likely to be a driveable par-four for much of the championship. Both par-fives can stretch well beyond 600 yards, and while the 13th plays downhill, reports from recent scouting missions suggest the world's best players will still need to stretch to their very limits to reach the green in two.

Former Southern Hills winner Retief Goosen in fact insists this is "made for the bombers", declaring that they'll love reaching for driver and making the most of the space Hanse and his team have undeniably added. He might be right, but when it comes to skills required then quality iron play and a brilliant short-game are higher up the list, because not only are these greens quite small for a course this long, but they're made smaller still by severe contours and steep run-offs. The result is that a narrow miss with an approach shot can multiply into something bigger, so it's unlikely this tournament is decided by long drives.

All of this calls to mind Augusta National, which plainly influenced the original design and continues to inspire the likes of Hanse. There, players are afforded space off the tee and given options with their approaches, often coaxed into attacking and penalised heavily if they get it wrong. That ought to be true at Southern Hills, where I expect we will see driver reached for plenty, despite the threat posed by bunkers brought back into play and the creeks which feature on 15 holes, often lurking to snare a slightly wayward tee-shot.

Augusta form colours the top of the market, where Scottie Scheffler and Jon Rahm are battling for favouritism, and a strong case can be made for just about everyone. But with approach play and scrambling both likely to prove vital, I boiled it down to Justin Thomas and JORDAN SPIETH, with narrow preference for the latter.

I will admit to not being wowed by odds of 18/1, but in this age of place-terms battle it's always likely to be the case that win prices for the best players are a little lower than we'd like. Certainly, you'll need a sizeable negative to get genuine juice – more on which with the case for another of my selections later – but the best players in the world are all priced accordingly.

Spieth is back among them now, and I do believe he arrives here with claims as strong as anyone's, with the potential to improve again on both last week's runner-up finish in the Byron Nelson Championship and his come-from-behind victory over Patrick Cantlay at the RBC Heritage before that.

On both occasions, Spieth was exceptional from tee-to-green, and that's been the case throughout spring. Indeed he led the field in the Texas Open but putted hopelessly, then suffered an off week at Augusta, before again leading the field and this time being rewarded at Harbour Town. Last week, back home in Texas, he ranked second, putting better than had been the case.

While a shootout at a TPC course may not be the best way to prepare for a major, for Spieth it probably was. Getting home, playing in an event he'd dearly love to win, guarantees his focus is not on the PGA Championship, and that could be especially important. After all, he is chasing a career grand slam, which would be an extraordinary achievement and is entitled to dominate the thoughts of anyone.

I'd be more worried that finishing second will have stung quite badly but again, the timing is good as he has something very important to move on to, and having fallen for this restored version of Southern Hills on a recent scouting mission, he arrives very much as one of the leading contenders.

Right now, there are few better iron players in the sport and there aren't many who are driving it better, either, so with his work around the greens looking sharp and his putting having improved, the case writes itself. Spieth's three previous major wins all came during a golden spell and his specific results prior to each of them read second, third, first.

Without doubt, there are similarly strong arguments for virtually every other golfer below 33/1, but if creativity around the greens does separate them then Spieth perhaps holds all the aces. He is preferred to Thomas on the strength of their major CVs, with Cantlay also having a question to answer on that front.

One man who raises his game for these is Shane Lowry and I was desperately close to selecting the Irishman, having done so last month when he finished third in the Masters. Four times this year he's had a big chance to win and it's testament to how well he's playing that he could produce his Augusta best despite his usually brilliant iron play having been anything but that week.

Third again at the Heritage subsequently when he really ought to have won for the first time since the 2019 Open Championship, Lowry has been one of the most consistent, reliable players in the sport this year, and his magic hands are a huge asset. But while majors don't allow much room for manoeuvre in terms of prices, I just can't bring myself to back him at half the odds he was a month ago.

Instead, I'll move on to another major specialist in HIDEKI MATSUYAMA.

On the one hand, his storming finish to the Byron Nelson was a little unwelcome, as it rather let the cat out of the bag and forced bookmakers to trim his price just a little. On the other, it's significant that he played so well given that he'd arrived under an injury cloud when defending his Masters title last month.

Finishing 14th there gave us some indication that back and neck issues were on the mend but the Nelson really should allow us to draw a line under problems which would be the only real negatives when it comes to a player who has won three times in the last 13 months, very much re-establishing himself among the elite.

It's impossible to overstate just how much of a confidence boost Matsuyama received when winning the Masters so impressively last year, a groundbreaking success for men's golf in Japan, and it's not surprising he's kicked on. Now, he's strutting round golf courses again like he did in 2017, when his dominance was going to extend to victory in this championship before he met an inspired Thomas.

Five years on and he's back playing at a high level every time he tees it up in a major. That Masters defence was far better than most tend to fare when hosting the Champions Dinner, and in seven majors since golf returned in the summer of 2020, he's never been worse than 26th. In the US, without the unpredictability of links golf, he's made 17 major cuts in a row and during this spell hasn't been worse than 35th.

It's a really impressive return and should be extended at Southern Hills, where Matsuyama's strengths seem a perfect fit. We all know he's a fabulous iron player – he ranked first last week just to underline the fact once again – but he's also brilliant around the greens, demonstrated best by that Augusta win (fourth in strokes-gained around the green) and his defence there last month (fifth in the same category).

Matsuyama has in fact been consistently excellent in this department ever since arriving on the PGA Tour and while we can be less assured of a good week on the greens, there have been clear indications of improvements in that department, too. Prior to his Sony Open win he'd shown a preference for the bentgrass we have here in Oklahoma, and if he does hole his share then a second major championship is well within his compass.

Ultimately, however fond I am of Lowry, however much admiration I have for his ability to raise his game in the biggest events, I do believe Matsuyama is a rung or two up the ladder. Choosing between them at the odds is straightforward enough here.

Now to a player who does come with one big question to answer: BROOKS KOEPKA.

The 2018 and 2019 US PGA champion hasn't been seen in action since the Masters, where he missed the cut owing to an awful couple of rounds with the putter. That in itself wouldn't be a worry, but the fact he withdrew from the Byron Nelson certainly has to be.

If that's the sort of risk you're unwilling to take, scroll on – by no means will you be alone. But just as certain is the fact that at 40/1, bookmakers are dangling a rare carrot beside the name of a player with four major wins, and a top-10 strike-rate of 50 percent in the four events that matter most.

I've taken the view that Koepka's major wins don't entitle him to be priced among the favourites, as he often has been, and I maintain it. That's why he's among the first off the list at under 20/1. But at twice that I do think we're getting serious value about someone who made the quarter-finals of the Match Play and hit the ball well to finish 12th at the Valspar before that, and while his fitness is built in, so is a missed cut at the Masters which probably doesn't mean anything.

Certainly, he overcame last year's missed cut at Augusta well enough, despite also missing the cut in the Nelson. After that he finished second at Kiawah Island, trading odds-on during the final round, and was also in the mix en route to top-six finishes in both the US Open and the Open Championship.

What's more, Shinnecock Hills looks to me like it might be the best recent comparison to this tournament and Koepka won the US Open there nicely, while his form at Erin Hills, Portrush, Royal St George's and Pinehurst again speaks to how good he has been under conditions somewhat similar to those expected this week.

Length will be a definite asset and while his approach play comes and goes, so often he times it right. All of which means that while he comes with that fitness red flag, given his wider major credentials and the likelihood that this course suits him down to the ground, I find myself unable to resist. He was, after all, around the 20/1 mark for his latest start in the Masters, and the risks are worth taking.

This has been a good major for a first-time winner and if there is to be another, the obvious candidates are Cantlay, Cameron Smith, Xander Schauffele, and Viktor Hovland.

Of the four, as touched upon it's Cantlay who has the fewest questions to answer whereas Hovland's chipping and pitching has to be a real concern. Smith has Augusta form by the bucketload now and on his day has arguably the best short-game in the field, while Schauffele sneaks in a little under the radar, has won twice since going off closer to favouritism in the US Open last summer, and should give backers a run for their money.

But while I do want to get some maidens on-side, I'd rather take a couple of chances and will start with TONY FINAU, who is the same price he was for the Masters despite having upped his game since.

Finau hit the ball beautifully on his way to second place behind Rahm in Mexico and then produced his best driving performance in several years at the Wells Fargo, where his typically excellent approach play went walkabouts for a week. That will have to change, but he'd ranked second on his previous start and a long-term strength ought to return quickly.

That leaves us Finau's short-game, and there's no doubt he's struggled at times this year, which is why he ranks 115th around the green and 192nd in putting. The latter is the biggest concern, but there's one positive to draw upon and that's the fact that throughout his career, Finau has been most effective on bentgrass greens – something we saw when he won The Northern Trust at Liberty National last August.

If we can squeeze a good putting week out of him then Finau looks a really strong candidate, not least because he's ranked fifth and seventh around the green on his last two starts. Rather than being anomalous, those rankings tie in better with what we'd seen over the previous two seasons, when Finau was firmly among the top tier on the PGA Tour, despite being best known for his length.

Chip in on No. 14. Tony Finau uses the slopes to get back to two under par. #themasters

As with Koepka, that power has to be a real weapon and again like his compatriot, his form in the Open – five cuts made in five, nothing worse than 27th, and a best of third at Portrush – tallies nicely with his form at Augusta, where he's also made all five cuts and boasts three top-10s.

In this championship he has three top-10 finishes in seven and his place return overall is better than 40 percent at the terms offered, so having won since last year's set of majors, I'm really keen to stick with him at these odds. It didn't work out at Augusta, where he finished 35th, but as mentioned he's produced his best golf of the year since then, and is very reliable at this level.

Another factor in Finau's favour might be that Shinnecock association, having been in the final group there and ultimately finished fifth back in 2018. That's enough for me to have warmed to the man who played alongside him there on Sunday, DANIEL BERGER.

The biggest worry with Berger is that he's sacrificed distance for accuracy and while being ultra-reliable off the tee has no doubt helped him at times, you could argue it also limits his scope. His wins so far have come on courses that are pretty short, certainly compared to Southern Hills, and in general I'd say the Open is his best chance.

That being said, he managed to work his way inside the top 10 at the brutally long Torrey Pines last summer and his increased accuracy comes courtesy of the sort of low, bullet ball-flight which will come in extremely handy when the worst of the winds hit.

He's an excellent iron player, ranking ninth this season and fifth last, and his work around the green has improved lately, too: Berger ranks sixth in scrambling, first in sand saves, and a solid 53rd in strokes-gained around the green.

Daniel Berger’s swing

All of this has helped him to a string of solid performances this year, overcoming a potential distance handicap for fifth place in the Tournament of Champions where he was the best player in the field from tee-to-green, and last time out ranking sixth in strokes-gained approach at the Heritage to show his game remains in good order.

With 10th place at Augusta to his name he ticks that box, too, and it was interesting to hear Spieth nominate him as one of the best he knows when it comes to chipping off tight, bermuda lies around these bentgrass greens, when the latter spoke to the media before the Byron Nelson.

Following two major top-10s last year, Berger might just be the sort to sneak in under the radar and confirm his love of a grind, as he demonstrated when coming close to winning the Honda Classic. That event has always been a good guide to majors and while it helps strengthen the case for runner-up Lowry, Berger had been in command before an awful putting day cost him the title.

At risk of over-egging the Shinnecock thing, I thought TOMMY FLEETWOOD might go well here at around the 80/1 mark and he completes the staking plan, despite the temptation to side with Robert MacIntyre and Min Woo Lee at massive odds.

Back at the time of the 2018 US Open, Fleetwood was a persistent major threat, contending at Erin Hills a year earlier, finishing second at Shinnecock the following summer, and then taking the runner-up spot again at Portrush behind Lowry.

He's been less of a factor since, struggles off the tee keeping him largely on the fringes since the summer of 2020, but there are some signs his driver is starting to warm up and that may soon spread throughout the rest of his game.

Fleetwood has always built success on what he does off the tee so in ranking ninth last week, I felt he marked our cards in an understated way. His approach play was also solid and it was only some issues on and around the greens that kept him down the leaderboard in an event that doesn't play to his strengths.

here’s a satisfying video of Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood hitting wedges at the exact same time

At 15th in strokes-gained around the green and 22nd in putting for the season he's otherwise been excellent in the short-game department, from bunkers especially, and there's substance to these stats as he was 22nd around the green last season. For a long time, in fact, Fleetwood has been a really sharp, creative chipper, and that could be a major weapon if combined with his best stuff from the tee.

Those performances at Portrush and Shinnecock look like they might be useful indicators and when 14th at the Masters last month, his driving and short-game were both very good. He seems to be coming to the boil nicely and we know that at his absolute best, a test of patience under firm but fair conditions is ideal for a player seeking to become the first English winner of this tournament's stroke play era.

A firm but fair test is exactly what I think we'll get from Southern Hills and while it's far from clear whose name will be added to the list of champions on Sunday night, one thing I do know: the PGA Championship will at the very least stand equal to the other three majors this year, thanks largely to a golf course I can't wait to see.

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