Rory has a his­tory of ex­cel­lence at host course of PGA Cham­pi­onship

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SPORTS -

CHAR­LOTTE, North Carolina — Jor­dan Spi­eth is go­ing for a ca­reer grand slam at this PGA Cham­pi­onship and doesn’t ap­pear to have a care in the world.

Rory McIl­roy hasn’t won a ma­jor in three years, but his ex­pec­ta­tions are higher than ever.

Blame that on Quail Hol­low.

This is where McIl­roy won his first PGA Tour event in 2010 when he fear­lessly fired a 4-iron into the breeze and over the water to six feet for an eagle that al­lowed him to make the cut on the num­ber. He then fol­lowed with a 66-62 week­end.

Quail Hol­low is where he shot 61 in the third round to run away from a strong field for a seven-shot vic­tory. He has played here seven times and has fin­ished out of the top 10 just once.

There’s a rea­son McIl­roy has been look­ing for­ward to this PGA Cham­pi­onship. And it’s a big rea­son why he is the bet­ting fa­vorite by a slight mar­gin over Spi­eth, who is just three weeks re­moved from win­ning the Bri­tish Open.

The odds on McIl­roy win­ning at Royal Birk­dale were 20-1, some of the high­est ever associated with him. He joked then that it was a good time to back him.

Now he’s listed at 7-1, but he doesn’t feel any dif­fer­ent.

“I told you those odds wouldn’t last long,” he said on Tues­day.

“I think it’s partly to do with the up­turn in form that I’ve had over the last few weeks. And then my his­tory on this course — a cou­ple of wins,

Five ma­jor Hol­low hope­fuls

beaten in a play­off, a few other top 10s.

“Things are a bit dif­fer­ent than they were a cou­ple of weeks ago.”

McIl­roy has posted seven straight rounds in the 60s go­ing into the fi­nal ma­jor of the year, though he was not in se­ri­ous con­tention in either the Bri­tish Open or the Bridge­stone In­vi­ta­tional.

A bad start held him back at Royal Birk­dale — 5-over through the open­ing six holes — and he was slowed by not hit­ting his wedges close enough or mak­ing enough putts at Fire­stone.

His long game has been as solid as ever, and that fig­ures to be an ad­van­tage on a course al­ready soft­ened by rain on Tues­day and with storms fore­cast for the rest of the week.

McIl­roy, like Spi­eth, also has three legs of the ca­reer grand slam. He’s lack­ing only the Mas­ters, and he hasn’t come par­tic­u­larly close in the three years he has gone to Au­gusta Na­tional with a chance to com­plete it.

But there are dif­fer­ences, too.

McIl­roy won the Bri­tish Open at Hoy­lake in 2014 and then had to wait nearly nine months for the Mas­ters. That was plenty of time to think about it.

“It plays on your mind a lit­tle bit,” he said. “I think that’s where Jor­dan doesn’t have to deal with that com­ing into this week. It’s great to be able to ride on the crest of a wave and just sort of keep it go­ing.”

Spi­eth said if ev­ery player was polled, all would agree that McIl­roy will win a green jacket. He con­sid­ered McIl­roy’s age (28) and how many more op­por­tu­ni­ties he had in front of him.

How­ever, Spi­eth also spoke last month about how im­por­tant it was to cap­ture his first ma­jor at the Mas­ters in 2015 when he was 21. He got it out of the way with­out al­low­ing pres­sure to build as it did for Phil Mick­el­son, who won his first ma­jor at 34, or Ser­gio Garcia, who won the Mas­ters this year at 37. So why is this dif­fer­ent? Af­ter all, Tom Wat­son was 32 and Arnold Palmer was 31 when they first went to the PGA Cham­pi­onship with a chance to get the ca­reer slam.

“Yeah, but it’s to­tally dif­fer­ent win­ning a ma­jor ver­sus win­ning a ca­reer grand slam,” Spi­eth said. “If you don’t win a ma­jor, you can’t win a ca­reer grand slam. It’s two dif­fer­ent things in my mind.”

McIl­roy, mean­while, isn’t the only player try­ing to make sure his year doesn’t end with­out win­ning a ma­jor.

Dustin Johnson looked good enough to win them all un­til he slipped down the stairs and wrenched his back on the eve of the Mas­ters.

Johnson be­lieves his game is close to where it was be­fore the in­jury. What sep­a­rates him from McIl­roy is Quail Hol­low. Johnson, who will re­main as world No 1 re­gard­less of what hap­pens this week, has played Quail Hol­low only three times, and not since 2011. He missed the cut twice and tied for 29th.

McIl­roy al­most feels like he can roll out of bed and play well at Quail Hol­low.

He can only hope to join a short list of play­ers who have won a ma­jor on the same course where they won a PGA Tour event — Tiger Woods (Peb­ble Beach and Tor­rey Pines, both times in the same year), Jack Nick­laus (Fire­stone), Ben Ho­gan (Riviera in the same year) and Wal­ter Ha­gen (Olympia Fields).

“There are cer­tain cour­ses that you can see your­self shoot a score on,” McIl­roy said. “You don’t re­ally have to have your best game and you still feel like you have a chance to win. That’s sort of how it feels here.”

The 39-year-old Amer­i­can en­joyed his best ma­jor finish with a run­nerup ef­fort be­hind Spi­eth at the Bri­tish Open. Kuchar, who also tied for fourth this year at the Mas­ters, has nine top 10s in ma­jors with­out a vic­tory. Could a ma­jor break­through be on tap at the PGA? The only PGA Cham­pi­onship win­ner since 2008 who wasn’t a first-time ma­jor win­ner was McIl­roy, in 2012 and 2014. Had Tiger not come around, I don’t feel I would have pushed my­self to achieve what I ended up achiev­ing.” Phil Mick­el­son, on Tiger Woods’ in­flu­ence

“I thought I was re­ally one of the top play­ers, which I was, but that was a pretty spe­cial dis­play of golf. I had quite a few run-ins with him in ma­jors. It wasn’t re­ally very close.

“This guy is so spe­cial and he ab­so­lutely changed the game. He got us to re­ally el­e­vate our games. But I could have had a cou­ple more, def­i­nitely, with­out him around.”

Els won the 1994 and 1997 US Opens and the 2002 and 2012 Bri­tish Opens. Mick­el­son won the 2004, 2006 and 2010 Mas­ters, the 2005 PGA and the 2013 Bri­tish Open.

Els was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011, Mick­el­son the fol­low­ing year.

“I think it will take a while to kind of sink in for the two of us, but it’s pretty cool,” Els said of be­com­ing golf cen­tu­ri­ons.

Mick­el­son agreed: “It just goes by so fast. You don’t think about it. It has been a lot of fun. I know we both want to win a cou­ple more.”

Each man was asked to pick one shot from his ma­jors as his best. Mick­el­son named his blast from the pine straw around a tree on the 13th hole at Au­gusta on the way to vic­tory in 2010. Els picked his sec­ond shot at 17 to help seal his sec­ond US Open ti­tle at Con­gres­sional.

“Lefty” and “The Big Easy” sized up each other’s le­gacy as well, Mick­el­son cit­ing Els’ work with autism char­i­ties as well as his golf­ing skills.

“What Ernie has done for autism, I think that’s the le­gacy he’s leav­ing be­cause he’s changing lives and im­pact­ing a lot of lives of peo­ple that go through autism,” Mick­el­son said.

STU­ART FRANKLIN / GETTY IM­AGES / AFP

Rory McIl­roy of North­ern Ire­land tracks a drive dur­ing Tues­day’s prac­tice round ahead of the PGA Cham­pi­onship at Quail Hol­low Club in Char­lotte, North Carolina.

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