Thursday, May 30, 2024

A top field has assembled, and Valhalla is ready – Irish Golfer Magazine

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Remember the PGA Championship that finished in the dark 10 years ago in the hills of Kentucky where a youthful Rory McIlroy captured the glory? Well, the lights are back on again at Valhalla Golf Club for the 106th PGA Championship. The next four days could be spectacular.

Certainly, the golf course is ready. Kerry Haigh, Chief Championships Officer for the PGA of America and the man in charge of course setup, calls the 7,609-yard, par-71 Jack Nicklaus-designed layout “a new course, almost,” what with tees and fairways transitioned to zoysia grass from the course’s former bent grass days.

Rain has added some dampness to the property’s dense rough, but the overall course conditioning this week is impeccable. To allow the PGA of America to get the course ready for a fourth go-around at Valhalla, the club kept its members and guests off the course since November. It shows.

Valhalla stands ready and so too does golf’s strongest field of 2024, with 99 of the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking assembled, joined by several of the top players from LIV Golf. With greens and fairways softened by early week rains – and with more scattered showers expected – the course will play quite long, but conditions should be conducive to good scoring, potentially besting McIlroy’s score of 268 (66-67-67-68) from 2014.

Max Homa is coming off his best finish in a major (T-3, Masters) and expects a certain formula when he gets to the PGA Championship: If a player can find fairways with the driver – and this week’s fairways are generous – his reward will be quality opportunities to score – especially with greens being receptive. Go astray with the driver and the course length comes into play. A golfer will pay a hefty price.

“I think this week with the greens probably being a little bit softer, we’ll see how the course plays, but I think the PGA especially has leaned into wanting to be a little bit more difficult test,” said Scottie Scheffler, World No. 1, who owns three finishes of T-8 or better in his four PGA Championship starts. “You look at Oak Hill last year, that was pretty challenging.”

Brooks Koepka took care of business at Oak Hill in 2023, capturing his third Wanamaker Trophy (he also won the PGA Championship in 2018 and 2019), winning by two shots over Scheffler and Viktor Hovland. There is a certain swagger needed to win the top tournaments, and Koepka, who turned 33 this month, has it. He owns a pair of U.S. Open victories to go with his three PGA Championships. He did not perform well at the Masters in April though and has used the sting to fuel him to do better this week.

The recipe worked wonders for him a year ago.

“When you look at a course like last year and you see who won, Brooks wins and you’re like, yeah, that makes tons of sense,” Homa said. “He hits the ball really far; he hits it very straight and he’s a really, really great iron player. So, it feels like they (the PGA) have leaned into it, and I think that’s good, because I like variety.”

Koepka also won last week’s LIV Golf event in Singapore to get back on track. He arrives to Valhalla as one of three top golfers riding a nice heater. That group would include Scheffler, who has won four of his last five starts, and McIlroy, who won the Zurich Classic in New Orleans (alongside partner Shane Lowry) before rolling over the field at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, where he won by five.

Koepka simply feels he is built for the majors, and that he owns an edge. He played at Valhalla in 2014, which was only his second PGA Championship start, and tied for 15th.

“Well, I think the majors are different than everything else,” Koepka said. “The majors are – they just have a different feel than any other golf tournament. I’ve always enjoyed it and they are always tougher golf courses. That’s something I get up for.”

The three previous editions of the PGA Championship at Valhalla have all proven memorable. In 1996, Kentucky’s own Kenny Perry seemed to have the tournament in hand, but Texan Mark Brooks caught him with a birdie on the par-5 18th and then beat him with a birdie on the same hole in a playoff.

The year 2000 gave us a classic: Tiger Woods over Bob May, a fellow Southern California junior star that Woods had followed as a youth. Woods and May traded highlight-reel shots for much of Sunday, with neither man relenting. They tied at 270 (par then was 72) and Woods then prevailed in an electric three-hole aggregate playoff (the first year the PGA Championship shifted to the format). For Woods, it was his third consecutive major on his way to winning all four, known as the Tiger Slam. Not since Ben Hogan in 1953 had a player won three majors in a season.

Ten years ago, in a week that brought storms and rain and would race daylight to the finish, McIlroy won by making a scrappy par in the dark at the par-5 18th to edge Phil Mickelson by a shot. It was McIlroy’s second PGA Championship title – he also won in 2012 at Kiawah Island – and fourth major at age 25. He has not won another major since, but enters Valhalla this time with his game in excellent form.

The weeks that Woods and McIlroy won at Valhalla, each was No. 1 to start the week, which bodes well for Scheffler. McIlroy, though, hopes to have his say.

“I think it’s all about confidence and momentum,” McIlroy said, “and I have a lot of confidence and quite a bit of momentum coming into this week. It’s just about trying to keep that going.”

McIlroy said the width in Valhalla’s fairways ­– plus some tees that have been moved back – will keep the driver in his hands, and that’s a club that he is swinging with great freedom.

“The corridors are wide, not too dissimilar to last week at Quail Hollow, so you can open your shoulders up off the tee and try to take your chances from there,” McIlroy said.

Twenty-one PGA of America Golf Professionals that make up the Corebridge Financial Team also will be teeing it up this week. That group includes California Head Golf Professional Michael Block, who a year ago tied for 15th at Oak Hill to earn a spot into this year’s field, and six first-timers at the PGA Championship, a group that includes 61-year-old Tracy Phillips, an instructor from Oklahoma.

Block will hit the opening tee shot on Thursday, stepping to the first tee at 7:15 a.m. Valhalla will be ready.

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