CHARLOTTE – Jordan Spieth, winner in two of his last three starts and undisputed hottest golfer on the planet, barely was off the course at Firestone in Ohio late Sunday afternoon when he started spinning some odds for this week’s 99th PGA Championship.
Your tournament favorite at Quail Hollow, a course dampened by steady rains and stretchable to 7,600 yards? Hey, that’s a no-brainer. Look no further than driver extraordinaire Rory McIlroy.
Dustin Johnson may be No. 1, Hideki Matsuyama is coming off his second WGC victory of the season, and Spieth is the hot guy. Nonetheless, so many things point to McIlroy to have big week. He’s a two-time PGA champion, his form has been trending in a nice direction (T-4 Open Championship, T-5 Bridgestone), his wedge play tightened up nicely over the weekend, and he’s now at one of those venues that just fits.
Why? Well, it’s one of those deals that is more difficult to explain than simply experience. As in, why do we love crashing go-cart videos? But since the day McIlroy stepped onto Quail Hollow more than seven years ago, he and it have forged a relationship as complementary as peanut butter and jelly.
Last week at Firestone was similar for him. McIlroy drove the ball very well, and his tie for fifth was about as bad as he could possibly do. He’d won there before. He sees the lines. He likes the place. It fits.
It’s really no surprise that he calls the Firestone-PGA tandem his favorite two weeks of the golf season.
“Some courses you go to that you just … it gives you that feeling,” McIlroy said Tuesday at Quail Hollow. You don’t really have to have your best game and you still feel like you have a chance to win, and that’s sort of how it feels here.”
Spieth, who captured his first British Open last month at Royal Birkdale, gets his first crack at securing the career Grand Slam this week at the PGA. Only five players in the game’s history have won each of the four modern-day majors, and they represent a list of the game’s greats: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods.
As much attention as Spieth will draw this week, and as well as he has been playing, the week still shapes up for McIlroy to be a factor. He’s the one who the betting shops have favored (at 7-1). He’s the one who saunters through the front door into the place as if he is home, brazenly flipping his keys onto the counter.
His very first time here, in 2010, there was magic for McIlroy, who closed with six 3s on his card to shoot a Sunday 62 and win his first Wells Fargo Championship. He was two days shy of his 21st birthday.
Five years later, McIlroy was at it once again at Quail, this time tying the course record by shooting 61 on Saturday (shared by Jerry McGee from the old Kemper Open days), and winning again. He’s played here seven times and has been T-10 or better six.
Add his history to a week in which rains have softened and lengthened the golf course, providing separation for those who drive it long and straight, and McIlroy, though winless anywhere in a strange 2017, seems to be the guy with the goods to get it done. All four of his major triumphs have arrived on golf courses that have been softened by the elements.
Yes, the opening five holes of Quail Hollow have been toughened, but much of the course is the same, and McIlroy, now 28, is flooded by positivity when he makes the long walk through the place.
“I just feel good around here. I don’t know what it is,” McIlroy said. “I’ve shot a couple of really low scores. I’ve got some great memories. I think once you go back to a place where you do have great memories, all that starts to come flooding back to you and it makes you feel good about yourself.”
McIlroy has a different bag configuration – taking out one of his four wedges to put a 3-iron in to help on the par 5s – but otherwise, not much has changed. He is back at Quail Hollow with a golden chance to capture his fifth major championship, and he will be mightily disappointed not to be in contention come Sunday.
If the hottest guy on the planet wants to deem him the man to beat, so be it.
“If I’m the favorite, I’m the favorite,” McIlroy said. “I’m happy with that. Means I’m playing well. Much different than I went into my last majors. It’s amazing what two weeks can do.”
And what a venue can do for a guy. Amazing.