This is it. The final major of the golf season is upon us, the USPGA Championship. This year the event is hosted by Valhalla Golf Club, which is located east of Louisville, Kentucky.
Valhalla, which has hosted this event twice in its history is just shy of 7,500 yards and with it being a par 71, the course will be long enough to test players ability to drive the ball long and straight off the tee. Despite the fairways being generous, it is always nice to hit the ball in a good spot, giving you the best possible approach to the green. As a result of this I will be looking at the Total Driving and Driving Distance stats, alongside the usual suspects.
A factor worth looking at this week, is how well players perform on Jack Nicklaus designed golf courses. So far this year we have seen players tee it up at Dove Mountain, for the WGC- Accenture Match Play, PGA National for the Honda Classic and last but not least Muirfield Village for the Memorial. All of the were designed by the man himself, and if a player you like this week has form on these courses, not only this season but in the past, it could be a good omen for them.
In terms of patterns, there are a couple that caught the eye. Firstly, the last 10 winners of this event, had a Top 25 finish in their most recent PGA Tour finish, suggesting that current form plays a big part here, and secondly 13 of the last 15 winners had a win earlier that year, Jason Dufner last year, and Shaun Micheel in 2003 the exceptions.
Although I will probably look past the win situation, as I feel a player can be playing extremely well, without getting a win, and therefore get their just rewards here, I am more inclined to focus on the Top-25 in the last event statistic.
The usual suspects head the betting this week, and despite a clear lack of form, especially off the tee since returning from his back injury, Tiger Woods is still up there with the market leaders. Open Championship winner, Rory McIlroy is clear favourite at 11/2, and is followed by World No.1, Adam Scott (12/1), Justin Rose & Sergio Garcia (18/1) and Rickie Fowler (25/1).
Keegan Bradley 33/1 (Boylesports, 30/1 Betfair and StanJames – 6 places) 2pts e/w: Not only is Bradley a former major winner, he’s a former USPGA Championship winner, so I am sure he loves returning to this major every year, even if it is held at a different course.
In three USPGA Championship appearances, Bradley has finished 1st, T3 and T19, with the win coming on his major debut. He managed to beat close friend Jason Dufner that year in a play-off, and as we all know, he himself went on to win this event last year. It is still only three years ago that he got that win, but it feels like this guy has been around forever.
Although he has only added one win, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in 2012 since winning twice in 2011, he has gained a lot of experience since, and he keeps knocking on the door to add another.
He is a big-time player, there’s no doubt about it, he’s made 10/12 cuts in major championships, and he boasts a top-5 finish at the U.S Open, two consecutive top-20s at the Open Championship and also a top-30 at Augusta, where he’s shown signs of struggling in his three appearances.
I can see him continuing his fantastic record in this event, here at Valhalla, a course that should suit his game. He is one of the longest drivers on Tour (14th in Driving Distance), and although sometimes a little inconsistent , he can generally find a good amount of fairways. Considering this course is set out nicely for the longer hitter, he will be hoping to gain an advantage on his competitors off the tee, and put himself in good position for his approach into the green. He’s also hitting the greens consistently from long distance, ranking 20th in GIR Percentage – 200+ yards, and 6th in GIR Percentage 175-200 yards. This is another stat I like when weighing up his chances, as the length of the par 4’s could require approaches with the longer irons.
Despite not winning so far this season, Bradley has finished in the top-5 in four events, including a runner-up finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Three of those top-5s have come in his last six events, most recently last week, at the WGC- Bridgestone Invitational, so he’s definitely trending in the right direction.
Current form combined with a great record in this event bodes well for Bradley, and I really do think he has a great chance of winning his second major this week, meaning 50% of his Tour wins have come at major championships.
Bubba Watson 35/1 (Bet365) 1pt e/w: Bubba Watson has already won the Masters this year, adding a second green jacket to his collection, and I can see him adding another major here this week.
Distance off the tee has been a hot topic this week, and you can’t mention long hitters without Watson’s name coming up. He hits the ball a country mile, and as he proved at Augusta, he’s not always wild off the tee either. Obviously he has his week’s where he sprays it around, but considering his length (ranks #1 Tour averaging 314.8 yards) he hits a lot more fairways than maybe one would think.
He has some history in this event, most notably in 2010, when he lost out in a play-off to fellow 2014 major winner, Martin Kaymer. Since then he has finished T26, T11 and missed the cut last year. He needs to be on the right course in order to use his length to his advantage and Valhalla may be just the place.
With wide fairways, he’s going to have a license to smash it off the tee (not that he ever holds back) and should he find the right part of them, he’s going to be going into the greens with shorter clubs than the majority of the field. He ranks 23rd on Tour for Greens in Regulation, so he’s hitting those regularly enough, and an above average week with the putter should be enough for him to contend.
He ranks 1st in Putts from 15′-20′ and 15′-25′ so he’s holing a decent amount of longer putts, and that could be key as he looks to make momentum putts. He touched upon momentum putts last week in his post-round interview at Firestone, and said it was a noticeable difference when he wasn’t making as many as he has been.
Another statistic in his favour is his #7 ranking in Par 4 Performance. Par 4 scoring is going to be key this week, and at -6 for the season, Watson is right up there with the best on Tour. This is no small part down to his long ball ability, as he’s consistently leaving himself short irons/wedges in.
Due to his reasonable record in this event, combined with the suitability of the course, I think Watson has a solid chance of adding a third major title in as many years and continue his fine season. Another tick worth putting next to Bubba’s name is his 3rd place finish at the Memorial this year, which he really should have won. He shot a level par round of 72 in the final round there, allowing Hideki Matsuyama to take the trophy by one shot.
Robert Karlsson 150/1 (Coral – 6 places, Boylesports) 0.5pt e/w: I tipped Karlsson for the Open Championship last month, and although ultimately he missed out on a place, he played incredibly well all week yet again, and I strongly believe he will continue his good form.
On the PGA Tour this season, Karlsson has finished in the top-10 twice, the top-15 twice (including 12th at the Open Championship) and missed just one cut, so he’s looked in great shape. He has also only missed one cut on the European Tour in 13 events, so he really is playing steady golf.
More recently though, Karlsson has put in some fine performances, finishing in the top-10 in three of his five events leading up to the Open Championship (his last appearance).
There is no doubt his ball striking is back to it’s best in recent weeks, but as is so often the case, it’s performance on the greens that is holding him back. Now to be clear, his putting has been in dire straights in the past (had the yips) and he’s nowhere near that state at the moment, he’s just not holing as many putts as he needs to, to get over the line.
He is holing enough to be in contention at least, and if he can just heat the putter up a touch more, he is dangerous in any event. He has some good finishes in this event, most recently his T4 finish in 2011, when Bradley won and he just run out of luck that week.
If he can keep up his good play tee-to-green this week he will no doubt be in good shape to challenge and at 150/1 I am willing to take a chance on him keeping up the good play. If he puts in another good week here, he may well give Ryder Cup captain, Paul McGinley a decision to make, as he does have previous Ryder Cup experience to draw upon.
Billy Horschel 200/1 (Boylesports) 0.5pt e/w It wasn’t long ago that a Billy Horschel was the talk of the Tour, in fact it was a little over a year ago, and although his year hasn’t gone according to plan so far, there are positives.
Although he had a very indifferent start to the season, coupling his 6th place finish at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions with a host of missed cuts, he has steadied the ship in recent weeks, and hopefully that’s enough for him to push on for the rest of the season, starting this week.
His struggles have come on the green this year, currently ranking 106th in Strokes Gained- Putting, but he is consistently finding fairways and greens, ranking 18th in Driving Accuracy and 6th in Greens in Regulation.
For whatever reason it’s been a struggle for him to hole out for a good period of the season so far, but in the last 6 weeks, he looks to of improved that area of his game, as his performances have improved significantly.
Of his last 6 events he has missed just one cut, which came in his last event, the Open Championship, however in the five events leading up to that, he did not finish outside the top-26, with a best finish of T6 coming at the St.Jude Classic. Another good finish in that stretch was the T15 finish at the Memorial tournament, at Muirfield Village, which as aforementioned has drawn comparisons with this course.
He is a streaky player, he has been for most of his career, and if he can get the ball rolling on the greens this week, I see no reason why he cannot contend. He’s not the longest hitter on Tour by any stretch, but he can get he ball down there, and with him hitting fairways and greens as regularly as he is, he must put himself in position eventually.
His appearance in this event last year was his first, and although he missed the cut, he should be relishing the chance to come back and improve, especially considering he’s proved he’s up for the major challenge in the past. Last year, he finished T4 in the U.S Open and did so in some style. He hit all 18 greens round 2 at Merion, and that just sums up his game.
He is very accurate with his irons, and it is just a case of him improving on the greens before he contends regularly again.
A side note as well, he has this week put a new driver in the bag, and although it’s not something I have used to base my decision on, he has added 10 yards carry off the tee, which could be vital here at Valhalla. Hopefully those extra yards do not mean a drop in accuracy, and it is just a welcome bonus.