It's au revoir Bridgestone, destination Valhalla as the year's final 'big one' gets underway. The U.S PGA Championship is the last major of the season and the biggest strokeplay event left on the calendar before the lucrative end of season Playoffs and Race To Dubai Final Series.
Guesswork seems to be the theme of the week as conflicting course reports come in from all angles. Valhalla is far from an unknown entity having held the 1996 and 2000 PGA Championships, as well as played host for the 2008 Ryder and a couple of PGA majors on the Champions Tour. Despite this, it seems to have even the professional golfers a little discombobulated when it comes to the skill set that will prepare you best for the tournament that used to be formally known as 'Glory's Last Shot'.
More on that later but straight to the front of the betting and Tiger Woods - 36.00 - dominates the headlines once more. An Oscar winning performance from Woods saw him leave the Firestone arena prematurely last time out, citing back spasms as the reason. By the look of him, many presumed his season was over but Jo LaCava - Tigers Caddy - has been seen dissecting the Valhalla fairways, sparking speculation that Tiger will indeed tee it up.
In terms of actually playing golf, it's the name of Rory McIlroy on every one's lips and he tops the market at 5.00. Rory comes here off back-to-back victories at the Open Championship and Firestone, and murmurs are that Valhalla will play right into his hands. Justin Rose - 17.00 - returns to the scene of a three point haul for Europe in the 2008 Ryder Cup and he gets my vote as the man most equipped to challenge the Irishman. Rose has also amassed two high profile wins in recent events and he featured strongly in Akron a few days ago.
If we are looking for a man that ticks pretty much every box this week, it's former PGA Champion Keegan Bradley at 26.00 who generally seems to excel at this time of year. If it's a fairy tale winner we want, local man Kenny Perry - 351.00 - is the popular choice and he may be worth having onside in the sub markets following a win last week on the Champions Tour. Fellow Kentuckian JB Holmes - 81.00 - is the man the residents will be hoping can put in a realistic challenge and the two return after a fantastic 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla.
The Course - Valhalla
The Jack Nicklaus designed Valhalla has been renovated in recent times and after being lengthened for the 2008 Ryder Cup, it now stretches 7,458 yards and plays to a par of 71. Since 2011, greens have been redone with a new strain and strategically placed bunkers have been added. Reports suggest that rough will be more penal than at the Ryder Cup in 2008 but it doesn't seem - at time of writing - to be overly punishing, if at all.
As ever with a Nicklaus design, fairways are quite generous but after putting the report puzzle together I've concluded that the key around Valhalla this week will be high trajectory approaches, and approach shot angle. Adam Scott says "the course is very straight forward, there will be a lot of birdies made", while young Jordan Spieth emphasises it's length, but points out that positioning is key. Phil Mickelson talks about high, soft irons into the pins.
Most Nicklaus designs, especially Muirfield Village are known as "second shot golf courses" and with tiered, protected greens comprising tough pin positions at Valhalla, it will be important to get yourself in prime place to attack. A long, straight driver will hold an advantage just like at Firestone last week which allows the aforementioned higher trajectory of approach.
Personally I think the Bridgestone Invitational will turn out to be a very good indicator of the potential leaderboard and contenders this week with a not too dissimilar test in store. The weather is currently hot and humid in Kentucky and conditions are expected to firm up as the week goes on, with greens running faster.
Three From The Pack
Patrick Reed - 76.00 or 16.00 - is on many people's radar this week. Birdies seem to be the brief at Valhalla and Reed knows how to go low. After a loss of form coinciding with a new addition to the family, three-time winner Reed has now hit back with good performances at Greenbrier and Congressional, and the confident youngster reached top gear last week recording a T4 at Firestone. Reed was born in Texas and won in the Californian desert earlier in the year so the heat and humidity factor may give him an extra advantage.
I put up Victor Dubuisson - 126.00 or 23.00 - last week for Firestone and despite being a debutant and having a cold week with the flat stick, the Frenchman still managed to finish under par with progressive rounds of 72-70-69-68. Dubuisson has proven he has what it takes in big events, notching a win in Turkey last year and finishing runner up to Jason Day in the WGC Matchplay. Furthermore, I think Valhalla will suit V-Dub more with the extra room off the tees and it may be that Firestone was indeed the calm before the storm.
Nick Watney is a man whose chances I rate this week. The simple fact is that 2 or 3 years ago when Watney was in his pomp, he'd have been around 33 to 1 for this event. Signs are there that form of old is returning and he really came onto my radar after a fairways hit clip of 83% at the Travelers Championship for a T11. He followed that with a top 30 at Congressional and has now come out of simmering mode with a T12 in Canada and a near miss in Reno last week. Couple this form with my opinion that the Valhalla course may play into an in form Watney's hands, and he looks a strong bet to me at 126.00 or 23.00 the place. Watney is the definition of a birdie maker and is the type that could potentially overpower Valhalla as the similar styled Anthony Kim did in his demolition of Garcia in the Ryder Cup.
Another man whose game I think is ideal for Valhalla is Texan Ryan Palmer. Simmering of late form wise, he's a multiple winner who can seemingly burst into top form out of nowhere. Coincidentally, Palmer finished 2nd to Reed in the desert at Humana earlier in the season, and he lost out in the prestigious Honda Classic in a playoff that included Rory McIlroy. Palmer ranks12th in the all round, is equipped with power off the tee and he's a regular in the upper echelons of the birdie stats. He's also been out practicing at Valhalla earlier than most and is one to watch at 251.00 or 41.00.
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