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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Can Justin Thomas emulate Tiger Woods?: Five players to watch at US PGA Championship

Seven of the past eight winners of the tournament have been first-time major champions - will that continue at Bellerive?

Justin Thomas heads to Bellerive as the defending PGA Championship winner. Getty Images
Justin Thomas heads to Bellerive as the defending PGA Championship winner. Getty Images

The fourth and final major of the golf season begins on Thursday as the world's finest players descend on the Bellerive Country Club in Missouri for the US PGA Championship.

Ahead of the first tee shot, Jon Turner takes a look at five players he expects to contend for the title.

Justin Thomas

Only one player has successfully defended the US PGA Championship title since the tournament switched to stroke play in 1958. That player was Tiger Woods. And he did it twice. Can Thomas go where only Woods has gone before? Based on his stunning WGC-Bridgestone Invitational victory at Firestone last time out, he will be confident of successive wins.

The 25-year-old American is the most complete player in the world at present, and his scoring averages this season have been remarkable. Combine the health of his game with the sky-high confidence and momentum he's carrying, and there will be few surprises if he was to emulate Woods.

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Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy is a two-time winner of the PGA Championship. Getty Images
Rory McIlroy is a two-time winner of the PGA Championship. Getty Images

How many times can a player of McIlroy's talent be in Sunday contention before finally claiming the win? At both the US Masters and British Open, McIlroy was firmly in the mix before falling short. Likewise at Firestone this past Sunday when a disappointing final round put paid to his chances.

But the game is right there and on a course like Bellerive and its PGA Championship specifics, McIlroy - a two-time winner of the tournament - really should excel. This tournament often favours the bigger drivers and few are better equipped in that department than the 29-year-old Northern Irishman.

If he can sustain the levels he has often displayed this season across all four days, McIlroy will take some beating.

Jon Rahm

Jon Rahm is seeking his first major title at the PGA Championship. Getty Images
Jon Rahm is seeking his first major title at the PGA Championship. Getty Images

Seven of the past eight PGA Championship winners have been first-time major champions and world No 7 Rahm could well add to that statistic. The 23-year-old Spaniard has been a revelation since bursting onto the scene two years ago, with five worldwide wins already, including the European Tour season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.

Missed cuts in his past two majors - the US Open and British Open - are causes for concern but his solo fourth at the Masters provided further evidence that Rahm is more than comfortable fighting at the top of the leaderboard at the biggest tournaments.

Undoubtedly a major-champion-in-waiting, the supremely talented Rahm may well end his short wait for a big title on Sunday.

Rickie Fowler

Rickie Fowler continues to search for his first major title. Getty Images
Rickie Fowler continues to search for his first major title. Getty Images

Speaking of potential first-time major winners (see above for Rahm) and players due a big win (McIlroy), few fall into both categories quite like Fowler.

The 29-year-old American continues to come close to breaking his major duck, a solo second at the Masters his latest near-miss. Surely it has to happen sooner rather than later. Right?

Fowler's game should be well-suited to Bellerive: he has plenty of length and is one of the finest putters around. Until he wins a major there will always be doubts and the pressure only intensifies the longer the wait continues.

One of these days, it will all go Fowler's way, so why not this week in Missouri?

Dustin Johnson

Dustin Johnson enters the PGA Championship as the firm favourite. Getty Images
Dustin Johnson enters the PGA Championship as the firm favourite. Getty Images

The world No 1 enters the PGA Championship as the firm favourite and it's pretty clear to see why. Before failing to reach the weekend at the British Open last month - his first missed cut of the season - Johnson posted eight top-10 finishes in 11 events, including two titles and a third-place at the US Open.

The blip at Carnoustie has certainly not derailed the American, who responded by winning the Canadian Open and finishing tied-third at Firestone, and he leads the PGA Tour in strokes gained: total and is first in eagles, birdies and scoring average (68.68).

Johnson, 34, has seen his major bids halted this season by one poor round, but, quite simply, no one can hang with him when he is dialled in. It's almost criminal that Johnson only has one major to his name. That could very well change come Sunday.