Sarah Stirk on the US PGA: Rory trending towards victory at a course he adores
Sky Sports Golf presenter Sarah Stirk has been a fan of Rory McIlroy for the final major of the season, the US PGA Championship, all year, and she's not about to change her mind now that the Northern Irishman has returned to form...
"This course gave him his first PGA Tour victory, when he shot 62 as a fresh face 20-year-old in the final round in 2010. It was the first of two McIlroy victories with the second coming in 2015. He's also lost in a play-off here and holds the course record of 61."
It's hard to believe that in this ferociously busy stretch of golf the final major of the year is upon us. I've been saying it all year but Rory McIlroy is the man to beat at Quail Hollow and the betting market seems to agree.
When I earmarked this as McIlroy's major it was primarily based on course form. His game is tailor made for Quail Hollow, with a premium on getting it out there off the tee. This course gave him his first PGA Tour victory, when he shot 62 as a fresh face 20-year-old in the final round in 2010. It was the first of two McIlroy victories with the second coming in 2015. He's also lost in a play-off here and holds the course record of 61.
The Northern Irishman is 66 under par in his seven outings at the Wells Fargo for an average of nearly 10 under per year at a tournament where the scoring is typically low. There have been changes made to the course this year so it is expected to play tougher, and could make the layout more McIlroy proof, but the player himself is undeterred by the tinkering.
"I think the changes are really good there," McIlroy said. "They have definitely improved the golf course, I think. They have made it more challenging at the start, but I think the flow of the golf course is still the same, and they haven't tinkered with the finish, which is obviously one of the best finishes we play on Tour."
So course form aside I do think Rory is really starting to find top gear with his game. He shared fourth place at The Open after a disastrous start and was fifth at the WGC last week, when once again he wasn't clinical with his wedge play.
The driving stats last week though were off the scale, averaging 328.7 yards off the tee in Akron, Ohio. Of his 56 drives during the tournament, all but four eased past the 300-yard mark, and with Quail Hollow playing soft after recent heavy rain and more bad weather in the forecast, conditions wise it's shaping up to be very much in his favour.
So with the world number four - who is a solid 13/2 favourite on the Betfair Sportsbook - my main pick for the title, who else has got my attention?
Rickie Fowler - 16/1
He's always going to be one of my favoured picks whenever a major comes around and that's so often for sentimental reasons. Fowler was waiting at the back of the green to congratulate Jordan after his epic Open Championship triumph and as pleased as he was for his good friend he's also desperate to taste major success himself. Maybe the fact the pressure is really off him this week given the McIlroy/Speith talk could be a real benefit. He also loves Quail Hollow. Fowler took the title here in 2012 with an impressive play-off win over McIlroy and DA Points to land his first PGA Tour title.
Danny Lee - Top 10 Finish 14/1
A bit of a gamble here but I'm backing Danny for a top 10 finish due to impressive course form. He finished T9 in 2016 and T13 the year before. He's definitely a comfort player on tour and he should have that comfort factor coming back to Charlotte this week. He's been playing steady stuff of late, nothing spectacular but has racked up a couple of top 10s over the past couple of months.
Justin Thomas - 40/1
The American has grown in stature and maturity and I love the way he visibly thrives on the pressure of major championships. He's still learning and by his own admission he made mistakes at the US Open after struggling to follow up a sensational third round of 63 on the final day. I think we're seeing more maturity in his game too with variety and creativity in his armoury, but that said his main weapon, his ferocious driving, will be a huge asset here this week. Thomas also recorded a top 10 here the year McIlroy blew away the field in 2015.