By Dave Tindall. Last Updated: 05/08/14 8:27am
Who will take victory at Valhalla this week?
Rory McIlroy is the hot favourite to make it back-to-back majors when he tees it up in this week's US PGA Championship at Valhalla.
Victory in the Open Championship at Hoylake and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational on his last two starts have catapulted the Northern Irishman back to world No 1 and Sky Bet make him just 9/2 to chalk up a fourth major title in Kentucky this week.
Pleasingly for Paul McGinley, such is the form of the Europeans that three of his prospective Ryder Cup team are in the first four spots in the betting - Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose at 18s following 12/1 second favourite Adam Scott and market leader Rory.
Valhalla was the scene of the USA's last victory in the Ryder Cup in 2008 so Tom Watson will hope some of his Gleneagles-bound side can regain some form at a venue that holds so many positive memories for the Americans.
However, Dustin Johnson's absence for the rest of the season and the huge doubts surrounding Tiger Woods means two of his star names are out of the picture although that does offer a window of opportunity for some of the other Americans trying to make the plane to Scotland.
As usual, Sky Sports 4 has full coverage of the year's final major with the first live programme at 6pm on Thursday. Kentucky is five hours behind the UK.
Valhalla Golf Club
The Jack Nicklaus-designed par 71 is situated 16 miles east of downtown Louisville and measures in at 7,458 yards. It's been a popular choice for recent big events and as well as hosting the 2008 Ryder Cup it also staged the US PGAs of 1996 and 2000 as well as the 2004 and 2011 Senior PGAs. There was an extensive renovation of the course in 2011-12 which should put it in tip-top shape for this week's event. The course has plenty of strong par 4s and also a gettable closing par five (542 yards) which provides the opportunity for dramatic swings of fortune if the tournament goes down to the wire. As with most Nicklaus courses, there is room off the tee and a premium on accurate iron play. Phil Mickelson says of Valhalla: "The fairways are always generous. I think the biggest thing is coming into the greens, you want to hit a lot of shots high and soft. The higher and softer you hit the ball, you seem to be able to make a lot more birdies at Valhalla. So that will be the biggest thing, not so much length off the tee."
A general view of the 13th green during Monday's practice round
Seven of the last 14 US PGAs have been won with double digits under par and the lowest total in that run was the 18-under at Valhalla in 2000, a number posted by eventual winner Tiger Woods and play-off rival Bob May. In the 1996 event, winner Mark Brooks beat Kenny Perry in a play-off after both had recorded 11-under. In the two Senior PGAs, Hale Irwin won with eight-under in 2004 while Tom Watson triumphed with 10-under in 2011.
One key stat in this event is that 13 of the last 15 winners of the US PGA had posted a win earlier that season. Therefore winning form in 2014 should be a key asset. It also applies to the two previous winners of the US PGA here. Not surprisingly, Tiger Woods had already tasted victory in 2000 (that included a 15-shot win in the US Open!) before taking the title here but it's interesting to note that 1996 Valhalla winner Mark Brooks had posted two previous wins that year.
Hot and humid is the norm for Kentucky and that will be the case this week. Bad weather has been a feature of past events here (the first round in 1996 witnessed a four-hour delay) and ahead of the 2008 Ryder Cup it caused chaos with over 100,000 homes having no power on the weekend. There's nothing as dramatic forecast for this week although there is a daily chance (30%) of storms on the first three days. Temperatures are set to be in the upper 80s with humidity levels high.
The leading contenders (and Sky Bet odds)
Rory McIlroy (9/2): Can anybody stop the Northern Irishman? After bubbling under for the early part of the season he kicked the door open with victory in the prestigious BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth and has now taken it up a notch by winning The Open at Hoylake and last week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. His driving looks imperious, he's hitting greens galore and his putter is working too. McIlroy won this event by eight shots in 2012 and was also third in both 2009 and 2010. On those stats it's the major he's had most success in and Valhalla looks as if it will play into his hands.
Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia: Shared second place at Hoylake
Adam Scott (12/1): The Aussie lost his world No 1 status to McIlroy last week for the crime of only finishing tied eighth at Firestone. Scott isn't doing anything wrong (before that he was tied fifth at Hoylake and tied ninth in the US Open), it's just that Rory's best is blowing everyone else away. Scott has been wonderfully consistent in the majors for the last four seasons (a win and eight other top 10s) so it looks a given he'll be up there challenging.
Sergio Garcia (18/1): Sergio played some astonishing golf at Firestone, his second nine on Friday and opening nine on Saturday adding up to just 59 strokes. But despite a week that saw him shoot a back nine 27 and a career-low 61 it still wasn't enough to get him over the line as he ran into new nemesis McIlroy again. Garcia, who was tied 34th in the 2000 US PGA here, can boast two second places (both at Medinah) and a third in this event but do his recent runner-up finishes at Hoylake and Firestone suggest another near-miss is far more likely than a long, overdue first major victory?
Justin Rose (18/1): The Englishman already has a major in the bag and also two recent victories (on the PGA Tour at Congressional and the European Tour at Royal Aberdeen) to further boost his confidence. He put in another big performance (tied fourth) at Firestone last week although admitted he never got comfortable on the greens. Rose was also Europe's second top points scorer (3pts from 4 matches) in the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla so should have some positive memories when he returns there.
Phil Mickelson (20/1): It was typical of the mercurial left-hander that 24 hours after admitting he couldn't see where the next good round was coming from he went out and shot a sparkling final-round 62 at Firestone on Sunday. As for Valhalla, Mickelson says: "I love the golf course." It certainly suits his game and in the 1996 USPGA there he shot 67-67 to take a three-shot lead at halfway before finishing tied eighth while he was tied ninth in 2000. Despite his winless and disappointing season so far the 2005 US PGA winner shouldn't be ruled out.
Rickie Fowler (20/1): Peaking for the majors is a real skill and Fowler has got it spot on this year with finishes of fifth in the Masters and tied seconds in both the US Open and Open Championship. He's marked punters' cards by doing well the week before each of those excellent shows so his eighth place at Firestone on Sunday again looks like the perfect warm-up. The negative for Fowler is that he still only has one PGA Tour win to his name - the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship. It's worth remembering, though, that he's still only 25 years old.
Patrick Reed: Knows how to win
Henrik Stenson (25/1): The Swede was in the form of his life in the second half of 2013 (finishing second in The Open and third in this event) but hasn't been able to get near those dizzy heights in 2014. He did make the top four in the US Open but finishes of tied 39th at Hoylake (where he snapped a club in frustration) and a 19th at Firestone suggest he's still searching for last year's magic. That said, he does have a very good record in the US PGA with a third, a fourth and a sixth in his last four appearances.
Keegan Bradley (25/1): A ragged back nine cost Bradley his outside chance of victory at Firestone last week but a tied fourth place was still another strong effort and backed up good performances in the previous two majors (T4 US Open, T19 Open Championship). His other big plus is a superb record in the US PGA. He won it in 2011 in his first ever start in a major while he followed that with a third the following year and a tied 19th in 2013. Bradley is also hugely determined to play his way onto the US Ryder Cup team without needing a pick and can do that with a big performance here.
Matt Kuchar (28/1): The American, who can make sunrise look inconsistent, is still in search of his first major victory after knocking at the door with 16 finishes of tied 28th or better since the start of 2010. A third in the 2012 Masters remains his closest brush with victory while his best US PGA effort was a tied 10th in 2010. Kuchar, who won at Hilton Head earlier this year, warmed up for the US PGA with a 12th place at Firestone last week and that included a closing round of 65.
Bubba Watson (33/1): The big-hitting left-hander is a two-time winner in 2014 with victories in the Northern Trust Open and The Masters (for the second time). He hasn't really hit the heights since Augusta although he did finish third on another Jack Nicklaus layout (Muirfield Village) at Memorial. Before he won his two Green Jackets, the US PGA was almost the scene of his first major when he lost out to Martin Kaymer in a play-off at Whistling Straits. He was also 11th at Kiawah Island in 2012.
Since 2007 the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational has been played the week before the US PGA and in those seven years it's acted as a very reliable form guide for the year's final major.
Each of the US PGA winners had finished in the top 22 at Firestone the week before (Dufner 4th, McIlroy 5th, Bradley 15th, Kaymer 22nd, Yang 19th, Harrington 20th, Woods 1st).
Add that to the fact that 13 of the last 15 US PGA winners had already won previously that season and a short-list starts to emerge.
The players who have won in 2014 and racked up a tied 22nd or better last week are: Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed, Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Matt Kuchar, Hideki Matsuyama, Lee Westwood and Kevin Stadler.
It's likely that the winner will come from this bunch as it includes the top four in the betting.
However, if you're looking for a bit more value try the youngsters Patrick Reed and Hideki Matsuyama.
Reed caused a storm back in March when he claimed after winning the WGC-Cadillac Championship (his third PGA Tour win in 14 starts) that he was one of the top five players in the world.
Journalists and fans have tried to hit him over the head with that remark whenever he hasn't lived up to his own billing but, to be honest, his results speak for themselves.
Only Woods, Mickelson, Garcia and McIlroy have won three or more times on the PGA Tour before turning 24 so he's in very elite company.
A general view of the 13th green during Monday's practice round
After a rash of missed cuts around the birth of his first child (a daughter), Reed has found his form again with his last three starts on American soil showing an 11th at Congressional, a 26th at the Greenbrier and a fourth in last week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
He closed with a 65 at Firestone so that should set up him perfectly for the major which most resembles a regular Tour event.
Matsuyama has already established himself in the majors, finishing 10th in last year's US Open, sixth in The Open and 19th in the US PGA.
He took the next step with a first PGA Tour victory at Memorial earlier this year and, like this week, that was a Jack Nicklaus-designed course with similar attributes to Valhalla.
After that victory Justin Rose said of Matsuyama: "He has all the attributes to win major championships. He hits the ball far, high, he seems to putt well, he seems to have a great temperament."
The Japanese star shot 65-68 on the weekend to finish tied 12th at Firestone so he heads to Valhalla in confident mood.
With the temperatures set to be hot and humid, it may play into the hands of the Americans - especially those with southern connections, who are used to such conditions (Texan-born Reed fits that bill).
Looking at previous results at Valhalla, the 1996 US PGA was fought out by Texan Mark Brooks and Kentucky local Kenny Perry while the Deep South boys such as Perry, JB Holmes and Boo Weekley also played a big part in the USA's Ryder Cup win there in 2008.
Americans dominated the other Valhalla events with Tiger beating Bob May in the 2000 US PGA and Tom Watson (2011) and Hale Irwin (2004) winning the Senior PGAs there.
If we extend the parameters slightly (from top 22 to top 26) then Holmes would qualify for selection here as he's a 2014 winner who played pretty well at Firestone the week before.
Holmes captured the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow earlier this year - an event that's often been a good pointer to future major winners - and in the 2008 Ryder Cup he was unbeaten in three matches.
But for a seven on the par five 16th in the last round at Firestone he would have made the top 20 so let's get the big-hitting local man onside and back him at 80s.
The best value European bet could be Graeme McDowell at 40s.
The Ulsterman admits he's paced himself in 2014 so is fresher than most going into this rush of big events. "I played light in the spring. It's paying off now," he said at Firestone last week.
McDowell had always struggled at the WGC-Bridgestone (he'd never made the top 20 in eight previous starts) so to finish tied eighth with weekend rounds of 66-66 (the exact same scores as winner Rory over the last 36 holes) could prove telling.
He also has experience of Valhalla. In fact, only three players bettered his tally of 2.5pts there in the 2008 Ryder Cup and he's pleased it's not ridiculously long unlike some other recent major venues.
"I'm at that point now where I'm starting to believe that I can hit the shots to win any given week if I put it all together," he said at Firestone so he looks worth a bet at 40s given his strong record in the majors (winner 2010 US Open, runner-up 2012 Open, T11 and T12 in last two US PGAs and T10 in 2010, T9 in last month's Open).
With Rory looking a very likely winner, going each-way at some bigger prices makes sense so close with Jimmy Walker at 55/1.
He was 26th last week so played pretty well and is a two-time winner in 2014 (a three-time winner if you take into account that this wraparound season started at the back end of 2013).
Walker has finished 8th and 9th in the other two US-based majors in 2014 and went to college, and now resides, in Texas so has strong southern connections.
Add in the fact that he's a high-ball hitter who likes room off the tee and Valhalla should be a very good fit.
1pt e.w. Patrick Reed at 80/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. Hideki Matsuyama at 50/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. JB Holmes at 80/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1.5pts e.w. Graeme McDowell at 40/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. Jimmy Walker at 55/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6)
Rickie Fowler admitted Rory McIlroy is the “best player in the world” after missing out at the PGA Championship.
Phil Mickelson narrowly failed to win the US PGA Championship but his second place kept alive a proud Ryder Cup record.
Rory McIlroy claimed the fourth major title of his career with a one-shot win in the US PGA Championship at Valhalla.