Who will win the 2018 PGA Championship? Bellerive favors the long, high and accurate

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Who will win the 2018 PGA Championship? Bellerive favors the long, high and accurate

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Who will win the 2018 PGA Championship? Bellerive favors the long, high and accurate

ST. LOUIS – Pro golf’s best have gathered in the Show Me State this week for the 100th PGA Championship. Fitting, because at long and soft Bellerive Country Club, players will be showing just how far, how high and how close they can hit their balls.

Hit it short but putt it well? It might not be the best week for you.

“I feel like the course sets up well for me,” said Dustin Johnson.

You know, the same Dustin Johnson that is averaging 299.9 yards of carry off the tee, ranks fourth in proximity to the hole at 33 feet, 4 inches, and is human ballstriking machine, leading the Tour in strokes gained tee-to-green by more than a half shot.

Much to Johnson’s favor, Bellerive has accurately been tabbed a bomber’s paradise in the lead-up to the year’s final major. Heavy rains have only exacerbated the challenge for the short-hitters and short-game specialists who won’t be able to rely on much roll on these soaked Zoysia fairways.

“The ball is just plugging out there,” Tiger Woods said. “If anything, it favors a guy who hits the ball high because we’re not going to get any run.”

The wet conditions, which won’t improve significantly in the humidor that it St. Louis in August, should also give ballstrikers an edge hitting into the greens. The bentgrass greens are large and feature many quadrants. Miss in the wrong spot and players will face challenging lag putts. But hitting it close will be made easier thanks to extremely soft putting surfaces, which feature shallow root systems.

“Balls are just kind of plopping the greens and they aren’t really coming back,” Keegan Bradley said. “And hitting off this Zoysia, it’s like hitting off a mat, so you can be pretty aggressive with pretty much every shot you hit.”

In other words, don’t expect a lot of balls bouncing or spinning off greens.

“It’s the quintessential target golf, sort of,” Rory McIlroy said. “That’s what it is this week. Where your ball lands is where it’s going to really stay. … You’re not going to see wedge shots spin a lot. You’re going to see them stop dead, but you’re also going to see a 6-iron stop dead.”

McIlroy, who has won all four of his majors (including two PGAs) on soft golf courses, joins Johnson as one of the favorites this week. He’s long and high, leading the Tour in carry distance off the tee this season (303.4). He also is top 50 in proximity and predominantly plays a draw. (Nine of the 14 non-par-3s at Bellerive favor a right-to-left ball off the tee.)

The wedge game is certainly concerning for those looking to back McIlroy, though. Luckily, there are plenty of other options that fit the Bellerive trend.

Aside from Johnson, two-time U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka is top 10 on Tour in carry distance off the tee (No. 8, 299.4) and jumped nearly 50 spots in proximity after last week’s WGC-Bridgestone.

Tony Finau is on the Ryder Cup bubble and searching for major victory No. 1. (The last seven PGA champions not named McIlroy were first-time major winners.) Finau joins Johnson, McIlroy, Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm and Luke List as the only players ranked inside the top 15 in both strokes gained tee-to-green and carry distance.

Bradley and Henrik Stenson are top 15 in both stroked gained tee-to-green and proximity.

Now, some players aren’t buying the obsession with the long, high and accurate this week – “I don’t think it necessarily favors any one kind of player,” Jordan Spieth said. And you certainly can’t rule out a Zach Johnson-type this week, much like with most other weeks on long, bomb-and-gauge Tour courses.

But through two days at Bellerive, few of the top players have seen the whole course because of rain. And chances are that come Sunday, the leaderboard will show more bombers and ballstrikers than shorties.

Sharpen the darts.

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