x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The green-eyed monster

Hazeltine presents a massive challenge as Padraig Harrington and Lee Westwood fly flag for Europe but Tiger Woods is still the man to beat.

Padraig Harrington regained his confidence at last week's WGC Bridgestone Invitational.
Padraig Harrington regained his confidence at last week's WGC Bridgestone Invitational.

The defending champion Padraig Harrington and Lee Westwood stand out as the two best hopes for European success when the US PGA Championship gets under way today, but it is hard to ignore overwhelming evidence suggesting that the final major title of the year will remain on American soil.

The test ahead is as tough as it comes, with the Hazeltine layout at Chaska, Minnesota stretching out for an intimidating 7,674 yards making it the longest course in major championship history and perfectly set up for the relentless charge of Tiger Woods. Three of the four par fives are monsters at 606, 632 and 642 yards, while the other measures 572 yards, suggesting the door is wide open for Tiger's power game to make it three wins in three weeks and give him a 15th major triumph.

Without doubt, Hazeltine is made for Tiger, although the same can be said of most courses. The crucial factor in his favour, as emphasised by his win last weekend in the WGC Bridgestone Invitational, is that he is the best putter that golf has seen. Bearing in mind that about 40 per cent of strokes in a round of golf are taken on the greens, he has a massive advantage over all his main rivals and perhaps a greater one than any other leading player has ever held over the rest.

His Saturday round was the one that got him into contention at Firestone last week with a five under par 65 lifting him to within three shots of Harrington. A brilliant round on the face of it, he nevertheless missed eight greens in regulation but was still able to conjure up the lowest round of the day thanks to another dazzling display on the greens which saw him take a miserly 23 putts. Tiger had 61 putts from 10ft or less during the week and holed all but one.

It means he is in a position mentally to almost give himself putts inside 10ft. This is why he went to Hazeltine as the pre-tournament favourite, as he does whenever he tees it up, regardless of whether his often wayward driver is having a good or bad week. Length is clearly a big advantage at Hazeltine, but only for players who hit it straight. Just a handful of players in the field can reach the par fives in two on a regular basis, and there is hope for the players who make up for their lack of distance off the tee by keeping the ball in play and capitalising on great wedge shots.

Zach Johnson won the US Masters three years ago helped by a glut of birdies on the par fives although he did not go for one of them in two all week. This kind of player could come through at Hazeltine, and apart from Johnson I like the look of South African Tim Clark who is very handy with a wedge, as he is with utility clubs, which will be very useful over the next four days. Hazeltine has given us some great champions down they years, none more so than Tony Jacklin who won the US Open there in 1970, a feat which no European has managed to match since.

The chances of a European win this time could hinge on whether Harrington can draw confidence from his hugely improved display at Firestone rather than dwell on the eight shots that he took on the 16th hole during the final round. After struggling all throughout the year, he produced golf which reminded us of the player who entered 2009 in pursuit of an unlikely Paddy Slam of four successive major victories.

He must draw positives from the fact he led Woods with three holes to play and not dwell on the horrible finish, although it will be a big test of his mental toughness. The other good news for Europe is that Westwood is playing great golf, arguably the best at present from tee to green, although his putting remains average. Another top-10 finish at Firestone will have helped build confidence for Westwood, who played the best golf at last year's US Open, and the British Open at Turnberry, before missing out on a play-off by a single shot on both occasions.

If he can discover some magic on the greens he could find the major breakthrough his game deserves. In his first tournament since capturing the Claret Jug at Turnberry, Stewart Cink produced another solid performance to finish tied for sixth place at Firestone and his Turnberry experience means he knows he has what it takes to win a major. The same can be said of Angel Cabrerra, this year's US Masters champion, who tied for fourth place at Firestone where he drove the ball really well and could use his great length off the tee to get in contention this weekend.

No player will have more popular support than Phil Mickelson, although it is questionable how well prepared he is mentally for the task ahead in view of the fact that his wife and his mother are battling cancer. The chances are on Tiger taking another step towards his ultimate goal to be recognised as the greatest player the game has seen, although, as Turnberry showed us, he is far from unbeatable.

Former Tour player Philip Parkin is a TV golf commentator with the BBC in Europe and Golf Channel in the US pparkin@thenational.ae