US PGA Championship: McIlroy feeling confident as Spieth seeks milestone

By Sports Desk May 18, 2021

Energised by the return of spectators, Rory McIlroy is confident he can end his major drought at this week's US PGA Championship.

McIlroy arrives in South Carolina buoyed by his drought-snapping victory at the Wells Fargo Championship earlier this month.

Not since November 2019 had McIlroy reigned supreme on the PGA or European Tour but the former world number one ended his wait at Quail Hollow.

McIlroy has not won a major since 2014, however the 2012 and 2014 PGA Championship winner feels good heading into Thursday's opening round.

"I'm happy with where my game is, so I guess if I go out and play my game and do what I know that I can do, then I can see myself shooting good scores on this golf course," four-time major champion McIlroy told reporters.

"So that's sort of where I'm at. Whether that means I win or not, that's partly up to me, but that's partly on how the other 155 guys in the field play, as well.

"I've just got to go out there, play my game, and if I play my game somewhat close to the best of my ability, I'm sure I'll have a good chance."

Fans returned for the Wells Fargo Championship amid the coronavirus pandemic as McIlroy thrived en route to glory and there will be fans at Kiawah Island this week.

"It's funny, ever since I was 16 years old I've had thousands of people watch me play golf pretty much every time I teed it up. Even going back to amateur golf and. So then not having that, playing in that environment for 14, 15 years and then sort of going the complete opposite, it's just different," he said.

"I said at the time it was like playing practice rounds. It's easy to lose concentration. Everyone is used to a certain environment, whether you work or whatever you do, and it's a bit. I watched the Champions League semi-finals a couple weeks ago and those guys play in that for the first time in their careers and they're playing in an empty stadium. That just must be terrible. That's not at all how you dream of being in a squad like that and playing in a massive game.

"You want to play in front of people and you want to feel that atmosphere. It's unfortunate that in these times a lot of people don't have that experience, but I am glad that we're getting back to some sort of normalcy, and when you hit good shots and hole putts there is claps and rewards and encouragement.

"I feel like that's all a part of tournament golf and competitive sports at the highest level, and just happy that I'm starting to come back."

Another former world number one, Jordan Spieth, is eyeing a milestone at the PGA Championship.

Spieth, who ended his fourth-year title drought in Texas last week, can become the sixth player in history to complete the career Grand Slam and the first to do so by winning a PGA Championship.

The three-time major winner, though, played down his career Grand Slam quest.

"I think as we get into the weekend, if I'm able to work my way into contention, I think it's something that'll obviously be asked and come up, and it's something that I certainly want," Spieth said.

"You go to a major, and for me at this point, I want to win the Masters as badly as I ever have this year. Didn't happen.

"I want to win this one as badly as I ever have. Once you move on to the U.S. Open, the same. Majors, that's what we're trying to peak for those.

"I feel like I'll have a lot of chances at this tournament, and if I just focus on trying to take advantage of this golf course, play it the best I can and kind of stay in the same form tree to green I've been in, all I can ask for is a chance."

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  • USGA chief hopes to open pathway for breakaway LIV golfers at U.S. Open USGA chief hopes to open pathway for breakaway LIV golfers at U.S. Open

    World golf remains split on the divide between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, yet United States Golf Association chief executive Mike Whan hopes to create a pathway for the breakaway players at the U.S. Open.

    No permanent deal appears on the cards in the near future as the PGA and Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF), which funds the LIV circuit, held further talks last week.

    Tiger Woods described the meeting as "productive" but just 12 LIV players will be in action when the U.S. Open starts on Thursday at Pinehurst.

    Jon Rahm would have been the 13th if not for his withdrawal due to a troublesome foot injury as LIV representation remains sparse at golf's major events.

    Whan wants to change the dynamic between the two competitions, however.

    "I think we are serious about that," USGA chief Whan said when asked about creating a link between LIV and the U.S. Open. 

    "Exactly what that looks like, I'm not just being coy, we haven't done that yet.

    "I also think, if I'm being perfectly honest with you, we've always felt like for the last year and a half that we're always three months away from kind of understanding what the new structure is going to look like.

    "So before we kind of react, what is LIV going to be, what's the PGA Tour? We always felt like we were just about to know that answer, so let's figure that out.

    "Now, I think the reason we're being more vocal about looking at that [pathway] for next year is maybe this is the new world order, and if that's the case we wanted to take a look at that.

    "I think it's feasible. I don't think it's a huge pathway, but we do offer other pathways through DP World Tour or Korn Ferry Tour, so we know that there's an option to get there."

    Past U.S. Open champions Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Martin Kaymer are among the LIV golfers to feature at this week's major.

    LIV rookies Dean Burmester, David Puig and Eugenio Chacarra all made the field through final qualifying, while veteran Sergio Garcia was added to the list of players on Monday.

  • U.S. Open: Scheffler facing Schauffele shoot-out at Pinehurst? U.S. Open: Scheffler facing Schauffele shoot-out at Pinehurst?

    The third major of the year is upon us, and one man in particular will be hoping it goes more smoothly than the second.

    World number one Scottie Scheffler saw his bid for a first PGA Championship crown unravel at Valhalla Golf Course, with Xander Schauffele ultimately edging out Bryson DeChambeau and Viktor Hovland for his first major crown.

    Many expect the duo – currently the top two in golf's world rankings – to battle it out for glory on Course No. 2 at Pinehurst Resort this week, as the U.S. Open heads back to North Carolina. 

    Rory McIlroy could have something to say about that, with last year's second-place finish at the U.S. Open the closest he has come to ending his decade-long major drought.

    Ahead of the 124th edition of the tournament, which features the largest purse of any major at $20million, we run through the likely contenders, the storylines to keep an eye on and what to expect from the course.

    The course

    Pinehurst No. 2 is hosting the U.S. Open for the fourth time, having previously been used for the 1999, 2005 and 2014 editions. 

    Since it first welcomed the event, the course has been home to the tournament more times than any other venue.

    The course, which was renovated in 2011, is known for rewarding putting accuracy over driving excellence, and it has not always favoured home players in the past.

    While Pinehurst No. 2's first staging of the U.S. Open produced a United States-born victor in Payne Stewart, New Zealand's Michael Campbell triumphed in 2005 and Germany's Martin Kaymer won by eight strokes in 2014. 

    That was the second-largest margin of victory recorded at the U.S. Open since the World War II after Tiger Woods triumphed by 15 shots at Pebble Beach in 2000.

    Expect four gruelling days. Indeed, across the previous four editions of the U.S. Open to be played at Pinehurst No. 2, only Kaymer in 2014 (-9) finished with a score better than one under par for the week.

    The contenders 

    Fresh off the back of his first major success, Schauffele will expect to be in the running again. He is one of four players to finish inside the top 10 at both of this year's majors to date, having ranked eighth at the Masters. The others to do so are Scheffler, DeChambeau and Collin Morikawa.

    Five players have previous won both the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open in the same year – Gene Sarazen (1922), Ben Hogan (1948), Jack Nicklaus (1980), Woods (2000) and Brooks Koepka (2018).

    The clear favourite once again, though, is Scheffler. 

    He was arrested and charged with second-degree assault of a police officer, third-degree criminal mischief, reckless driving and disregarding traffic signals from an officer after attempting to pass an incident outside Valhalla ahead of his second round last month.

    He finished the tournament in a share of eighth – an admirable effort, given the disruption – and saw his charges dismissed just 12 days after his arrest.

    The incident has not done much to affect his form. Scheffler claimed his fifth title of the year at the PGA Tour's Memorial Tournament last week, becoming just the second player – alongside Woods – to win the Players Championship, Masters and Memorial in the same year.

    He has won five of his eight tournaments on the PGA Tour since March, finishing T2 twice and T8 once in the other three. 

    Reflecting on the way he responded to his arrest at Valhalla, Scheffler said: "I call it compartmentalising parts of my life.

    "So I have my off-course life and then I have my on-course life, when I'm out here practicing and playing tournaments. I don't show up to these tournaments just to play. I'm here to do my best and compete."

    Besides Scheffler and Schauffele, McIlroy will be hoping to go one better after finishing one stroke behind champion Wyndham Clark at last year's U.S. Open.

    Having fallen short at the year's first two majors, the Northern Irishman hopes the firm conditions expected in North Carolina will play into his hands. 

    "After the Open Championship in 2019 I'd had a disappointing run in the majors, and I tried to change my mindset," he told The Telegraph.

    "Since then I've come to love it when it is fast and firm. If you look at my results in the U.S. Open and some of the toughest tests from 2019 until now, I would say the U.S. Open has arguably been my best major in the last few years."

    Morikawa should also be there or thereabouts, having been narrowly edged out by Scheffler on his most recent outing at the Memorial.

    Alongside Ludvig Aberg, he has the most top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour this year without a victory (six). Might his luck turn this week?

    The legends

    The U.S. Open will also feature a couple of players attempting to recapture past glories, with Woods the one most fans are looking forward to seeing.

    He missed the cut at the PGA Championship after carding scores of 72 and 77, subsequently admitting improvements are needed in all areas if he is to fare better on his first U.S. Open appearance since 2020.

    "I need to clean up my rounds," Woods said after the PGA Championship. "Physically, yes, I am better than I was a month ago.

    "I still have more ways to go, lots of improvement to do physically, and hopefully my team and I can get that done pre-Pinehurst."

    Only four players – Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, Hogan and Nicklaus (four apiece) – have bettered Woods' three U.S. Open triumphs, and his most recent victory at the event was the last to be decided by a playoff, seeing off Rocco Mediate in 2008.

    While Woods has enjoyed plenty of success at the U.S. Open, the same cannot be said for Phil Mickelson.

    It is the only major he has not won in his 32 attempts, 30 as a professional and two as an amateur, and his six second-place finishes at the U.S. Open are more than any other player.

    The first of those came 25 years ago, at Pinehurst No. 2.

    The history 

    For all the big names on show, the U.S. Open does have a tendency to throw up surprise victors.

    Indeed, since Woods triumphed at Torrey Pines in 2018, 12 of the next 15 U.S. Opens have produced a first-time major champion. That includes the last five editions, with Gary Woodland, DeChambeau, Jon Rahm and Matt Fitzpatrick triumphing before Clark.

    Clark could become just the fourth player since World War II to retain the U.S. Open title, after Hogan (1950 and 1951), Curtis Strange (1988 and 1989) and Koepka (2017 and 2018). 

    Last year's victory at Los Angeles Country Club remains his only top-30 finish at a major – he missed the cut at this year's Masters and PGA Championship.

    The U.S. Open was formerly known as a real test of endurance, but things have changed somewhat in recent years.

    From 2005 to 2013, six of nine editions produced an even/over-par winning score, but nine of the last 10 have been won with an under-par score, the exception being Koepka's 2018 victory at Shinnecock Hills (+1).

    What kind of score will be required this time out? If Scheffler maintains his outstanding form, he will take some beating. 

  • Scheffler does not feel there is a target on his back at US Open Scheffler does not feel there is a target on his back at US Open

    Scottie Scheffler has insisted that he does not feel there is a target on his back as he aims to capture his third major championship victory in this week's US Open at Pinehurst. 

    Scheffler's victory at the Memorial Tournament last week saw him become only the fourth PGA Tour player in the past 60 seasons to win five times before the end of June.

    It was the American's fifth win in eight PGA Tour starts, having also won the Arnold Palmer Invitational, The Players, The Masters and RBC Heritage, last missing a cut in August 2022. 

    "I try not to think about the past too much, and I try not to think about the future too much," Scheffler told the media.

    "I just try and live in the present. Sometimes it's easier and sometimes it's a bit harder.

    "I feel like coming off of last week, I was really excited and celebrated for a few minutes there, but my mind kind of just goes on to the next thing. I was getting ready, trying to get out of there and trying to prep for next week.

    "I'm not thinking about my wins anymore. All I'm focused on is this week and getting ready to play. Just because I won last week doesn't give me any shots against the field this week.

    "We all start even par, and the field is level again starting on Thursday. Last week doesn't really matter. I still don't feel like there's much of a target on my back. It's not like anybody is out there playing defence."

    Scheffler will tee off with PGA Championship winner Xander Schauffele and four-time major champion Rory McIlroy in Thursday's first round, the players closest to him in the world rankings. 

    "When I play with Xander and Rory here Thursday and Friday, they're not going to be saying weird stuff to me out on the golf course or trying to block my putt from going in the hole," Scheffler added.

    "As far as a target on my back, even if there was, there's really not much we can do in the game of golf. Most of it is against the golf course and playing against yourself."

    Scheffler would be the first golfer to win on tour and capture a major the following week since McIlroy at the 2014 PGA Championship.

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