Ahead of the fourth and final major of the golf season, John McAuley addresses the big issues leading up to the event in Charlotte.
Can McIlroy's Quail Hollow form block Spieth's grand slam bid? US PGA Championship talking points
Can Jordan Spieth seal the grand slam?
The defining storyline heading into this week. Following one of the greatest closes at Royal Birkdale, Spieth can become the youngest player in history to achieve the career grand slam. The American turned 24 days after clinching the Claret Jug and now has his sights trained on completing the major set. Win at Quail Hollow and Spieth eclipses the record set by Tiger Woods in 2000. It would lift the three-time major winner into rarified air indeed: only five players have won the grand slam and only three did so at the first attempt. Spieth, though, might find it tough to make that four. Quail Hollow does not set up well for him, and his wayward driving could scupper his chances. But, then, there was always Birkdale...
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Is Rory McIlroy the only form horse at Quail Hollow?
It's no secret: McIlroy and Quail Hollow are a perfect match. The world No 4 has won there twice, has finished second and holds the course record. Plus, the weather conditions this week play into McIlroy’s hands. Drive it long and straight, and you’re going to contend. However, there are others who love this track, too. Rickie Fowler, for instance, won there in 2012 and thus has a great chance to break his major duck. Phil Mickelson, meanwhile, is a five-time major winner and, although aged 47, he still has 21 career rounds at Quail in the 60s - way more than any other player. McIlroy, though, remains the man to beat. He won’t have a better chance to end a three-year wait for a major.
Does Dustin Johnson need to save his season?
With three victories on the PGA Tour this season, that seems a tad harsh. When Johnson completed a third win on the bounce earlier this year, he strode into the Masters as the world No 1 and overwhelming favourite. Then he slipped at his rented home and slid almost from view. Since his withdrawal at Augusta, Johnson has two top-10s in eight starts, missed the cut at the US Open and finished tied-54th at the British. Yet a 68-66 last week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational suggested he is back on track. Johnson said this week he is "close" to his pre-Masters play and conditions in Charlotte favour him, too. Given his Spring haul, 2017 should be viewed a fine year. Win at Quail and it becomes a great one.
Will Hideki Matsuyama use momentum to break through?
Sunday’s shoot-the-lights-out performance at Firestone was one of the season’s finest displays. Matsuyama shot a nine-under-par 61 for a five-stroke victory, at the same time reinforcing his reputation as an incredibly bright talent. It made it six victories in his past 20 worldwide starts – plus two seconds in that span – while he continues to occupy a top-three spot in the global rankings. The next target? A major title. Most definitely, Matsuyama will become the first Japanese player to win one of golf’s big crowns, and his tied-11th at the Masters and runner-up at the US Open this year underlines his major credentials. Going two-for-two at such high-profile events is always difficult, but Matsuyama’s game is all there to prosper this week.
Which of the course changes will impact the players most?
Quail Hollow is a popular track. Granted, its closing three holes - the “green mile” - are notoriously difficult, a real test of a player’s mettle. Yet now the other end of the course can get the knees knocking, also. The first and second have been merged to make an opening, 524-yard par 4, with a new par-3 second. The fifth has gone from a par 5 to a par 4. As McIlroy put it this week, he used to aim to get through that stretch in two-under. Now it’s even par. Which makes a good score on the opening hole all the more important. The first at Quail was previously a nice introduction to the round, but at 96 yards longer, getting away with par now represents a bonus. Long and mean, it sets the tone