There was European success to savour last week as Shane Lowry became the latest Irishman to make his name in the States with a two-shot victory at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. His was a popular triumph, celebrated by none more so than Elizabeth Hudson who took the weekly win in our Fantasy Golf game. As well as Lowry, her ‘death of cool’ team featured Justin Rose, Danny Lee, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Soren Kjeldsen who all finished in the top 12 at Firestone. That stellar line-up brought in 278 points – 22 clear of the field – in our double points week.
The bar is raised even higher this week with the year’s final major and triple points event - the US PGA Championship. Another Irishman has dominated the pre-tournament headlines with Rory McIlroy set to overcome his ankle injury in time to defend the title he won at Valhalla 12 months ago. It means we will finally get to see McIlroy and Jordan Spieth go head-to-head after the pair were grouped with Open champion Zach Johnson for the first two days. McIlroy came through a practice round at Whistling Straits unscathed last weekend while Spieth visited the Wisconsin venue earlier this summer and described it as ‘spectacular’.
The Straits course is certainly jaw-dropping. The 7,514-yard par 72 might border Lake Michigan but you would be forgiven for thinking you were on a British or Irish links for this is surely as close as it gets across the pond. Large dunes, fescue rough, pot bunkers and sloping greens are tough and, if the wind blows too, this is a brutal test.
If the play is half as dramatic as the stage we are in for one hell of a week and the build-up has offered plenty of encouragement. As well as McIlroy’s return and impending clash with Spieth, plenty of big names looked in fine form in Ohio last week. Watson, Rose, Furyk, Stenson, Spieth, Fowler and Day were all prominent, while Bubba, both Johnsons, Rory, Kuchar, Day and Mickelson ran eventual winner Martin Kaymer close here in 2010. And we haven’t even mentioned Tiger yet…
No doubt the big hitters enjoy an advantage this week with reachable par fives and long par fours but accuracy is more important with severe penalties for anything wayward. Five years ago, the German ranked sixth in greens in regulation when he won here and, while Bubba and Dustin ran him close, the shorter-hitting Zach Johnson only missed the play-off by a single shot.
The weekend is set fair but the weather could have a say over the opening two rounds. The strongest winds of the week (around 15mph) are forecast for Thursday afternoon before stormy conditions take over on Friday morning. Here’s my line-up for this week…
Jason Day, £4.5m
The Australian has been in great form since the bout of vertigo that derailed his US Open bid at Chambers Bay in June. There followed another near miss for his maiden major at St Andrews before victory in Canada and 12th at Firestone last week. He is second in the Tour’s all-around ranking and finished 10th here five years ago.
Jordan Spieth, £3.5m
Rankings of 85th in driving accuracy and 55th in greens in regulation might dissuade some but it has simply become too risky to omit Jordan. His short game is better than anybody’s right now and his seven results since missing the cut at the Players in May make very attractive reading – 2, 30, 3, won, won, 4, 10.
Zach Johnson, £2.8m
Tailed off after a flying start at the Bridgestone but 33rd still represented a decent return after the high of his Open win – his third straight top six at the time. Fourth in driving accuracy and 12th in the PGA Tour’s all around ranking, the Iowan was 37th here in 2004 and third in 2010.
Danny Willett, £1.6m
The Englishman is riding the crest of a wave, backing up a sixth-place finish at St Andrews with a win in Switzerland and 17th last week at the WGC. He was second in greens in regulation on his way to that European Masters victory and that, coupled with good links form (he was sixth at the Irish Open in May too) points to a strong challenge here.
Paul Casey, £1.4m
Stays in my team after finishing 17th in Ohio last week. The Englishman is fifth in greens in regulation on the PGA Tour this term and was 12th here in 2010.
Robert Streb, £1.2m
Flyer of the week but the man from Oklahoma represents great value. He’s made nine straight cuts with the last four of those yielding top-20 finishes. The Open Championship was amongst that quartet, boding well for this links-style test. He’s 11th in greens in regulation and 13th in the all around this season.