August 1, 2021

Big stars will shine at tough Harding Park

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Nick Dougherty

Golf Expert

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Last Updated: 06/08/20 6:40am

Ahead of the PGA Championship, Nick Dougherty expects the tough layout at Harding Park will favour only the very best players in the world, with Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy the stars who can shine.

You have got to admire Brooks Koepka’s attitude going into any major. He says he is the man to best this week, that he “probably should win”, and he reiterated only 10 or so players have legitimate claims to win a major – the rest just play – and think – themselves out of contention.

Koepka is bidding for a third straight PGA win Koepka is bidding for a third straight PGA win

Koepka is bidding for a third straight PGA win

He is not reinventing the wheel there, there are a lot of better golfers than Koepka over the years who have said that before. It is what Jack Nicklaus used to say a lot, that the majors are often easier to win because a lot of players beat themselves.

But credit to Brooks, he is learning from the likes of Jack in approaching majors. He is confident, some might say it is posturing, although I do not think he is anywhere near as bullish as he comes across sometimes.

He plays that role pretty well, so if it works for him, then fine. He has got that “gunslinger” aura about him. You do not want to look him in the eye or mess with him in any way, and he is tough, no doubt about that.

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When it comes to majors, he has proved beyond doubt that he knows how to get the job done. He know how to get the best out of himself at the right time, so when the going gets tough, he will get the best out of his game time and time again. Most golfers go the other way.

When the stakes are raised, it is human nature to not perform at our best when it matters more, and when we are under pressure, we falter. It does not seem to work that way for Brooks, and I will be interested to see if that continues this week.

He played well last week and led the Strokes Gained – Approach stats, and iron play from 175-200 yards in at TPC Harding Park is going to be crucial. But you have got to hit the fairway first, and they are hard fairways to hit. The penalty for missing? Thick rough.

Koepka bounced back to form in Memphis last week Koepka bounced back to form in Memphis last week

Koepka bounced back to form in Memphis last week

Koepka seemed to find the short grass pretty well in Memphis, his iron play was great, and Justin Thomas, the new world No 1, was just as good, and better in other areas.

Tee to green is arguably more important this week than putting, and it seems the course will play a lot differently than it has in the past. I played in the WGC there in 2005 and there were not huge amounts of rough. But it is a completely different test now.

It’s playing long, it’s going to be quite a cool week, the fairways are narrow, and the guys that find the fairways with the most regularity are going to have a significant advantage over the more wayward players off the tee.

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Conditions are likely to be roughly the same as what we see at Torrey Pines, and occasionally at Riviera early in the season. If it is going to be a cool week, that makes me a little apprehensive for Tiger Woods.

He has struggled to keep his back warm and loose in the cold over the last couple of years, and it is going to be something to monitor this week. The forecast does not seem to be good news for Tiger, but I hope I am wrong.

We saw clear evidence of this at Royal Portrush during The Open last year. Tiger was well wrapped up against the evidence, but he just does not move as well when it is colder.

 Tiger Woods could struggle in the cold  Tiger Woods could struggle in the cold

Tiger Woods could struggle in the cold

I am expecting Rory to play well this week, and I like what I heard from him pre-tournament. He has had some good stuff in golf’s post-Covid period, he just has not been able to maintain momentum with his scoring.

The good stuff is there, he just has not been sharp enough for 72 holes. So where better to regain that sharpness than a major championship at a venue where he is had success before, albeit in a different format over a slightly different layout.

Whatever the case, the players are going to have to get used to the ball not flying nearly as far this week. Any thoughts of carrying a drive over that bunker 300 yards out, forget it. That is not happening this week.

Rory McIlroy needs momentum with his scoring Rory McIlroy needs momentum with his scoring

Rory McIlroy needs momentum with his scoring

Strategy is key, driving the ball well is key, patience is key. As Koepka said, it is a big-boy golf course in terms it being unrelenting. It looks reasonable simple and traditional to the untrained eye, but it is a proper test of golf.

You need to shape the ball both ways through the air, you need to find the rights sides of the fairway to access certain pins, and everything about it says to me the cream will rise to the top, and we will see one of the recognised top players lifting the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday.

I am expecting Harding Park to highlight the best players in the game, and the only thing that might be in the favour of the lesser players is the lack of atmosphere being behind closed doors this week.

For me, it is a PGA Championship at a tough venue, where the big stars will shine.