THIRTY years ago the Ryder Cup headed to Kiawah Island and what followed was the most heated match in the contest’s history, ending in a defeat for the visitors which left them scarred and hurt. In 2012 the Europeans exacted a sort of revenge, dominating the top ten when the PGA Championship first visited the course, although the fight was less between the USA and Europe than between Rory McIlroy and the field because the Northern Irishman left the latter reeling a massive eight strokes adrift by close of play on Sunday.
This week’s return to the Pete Dye-designed Ocean Course has been greatly anticipated. It’s a visually stunning layout, if a little contrived, and is a test that owes much to his left-field architectural ideas and the blustery wind that whips in off the Atlantic. Fresh from his recent success at Quail Hollow expect lots of McIlroy chatter this week – with his history at the course it’s inevitable and also justified.
I’m struggling to promote the favourites this week. McIlroy and Bryson DeChambeau might easily get floored by high wind, Dustin Johnson pulled out last week injured and is in poor form, Jon Rahm has gone off the boil, Justin Thomas has three good recent wins but also drifts out of contention a lot, and Jordan Spieth was a little fatigued last week after his brush with Covid. Viktor Hovland has a lot in his favour, but he’s a very tight price in a major for a fellow with just the two low-grade wins to his name, even if they were in conditions startlingly similar to this week.
So the first of three bigger-priced selections is England’s Tyrrell Hatton who fits the profile of recent PGA Championship winners in being in his 20s, a winner this season, and in search of a first major championship title. Moreover, Hatton is no stranger to playing golf in windy conditions by the sea – in fact, he thrives in such situations as a linksland specialist and two-time winner of the Dunhill Links Championship. Even his first win on the PGA Tour, at Bay Hill last year, came in blustery and “major-like” conditions.
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) May 16, 2021
Billy Horschel may not be in his 20s, but he fits other trends this week, principally the fact that he’s a winner this season and is ranked in the world’s top 25 (18th). In fact, if you then create a short-list of the players in the current top 25 who’ve won this year and then add their odds, one name leaps from the page – his.
That alone would be tempting enough, but his win in the World Golf Championship Dell Match Play came at Austin Country Club which is a Pete Dye design and it’s not the first time he’s claimed success on one of his creations – his 2013 win came at TPC Louisiana which is yet another Dye-abolical track. Nor was that excellent WGC effort in March his first among elite company this year – he was also a fine second behind this week's defending champion Collin Morikawa at the Workday Championship. It’s very true that he’s never done himself justice in the majors, but he’s never been more motivated (he’s desperate to play the Ryder Cup) and never been more encouraged (by that form in high-grade events).
When thoughts drift to driving the golf ball low in high wind, it’s not long before the name Branden Grace crops up. The South African drills the ball with a piercing flight that has suited him well time and time again in blustery wind. On the European Tour, where he made his name, he ticked off two wins at the famously breezy Doha in the Qatar Masters and he is also a past champion in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, which is played at Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and St Andrews. Meanwhile, at home in South Africa, he not only owns a property at Fancourt, he’s also a two-time winner on the Links course there.
Back in 2016 he earned his first Stateside win in The Heritage which is not only played at Harbour Town, another windy venue by the sea, but it’s also designed by Pete Dye. He has also carded the first 62 in major championship history at Royal Birkdale and his best finish in a major was third in this tournament at Whistling Straits in 2015 – yet another Dye track. The icing on the cake? He’s a winner this year, yet again on a gusty course by the ocean in the Puerto Rico Open.