Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis plays host to the 100th edition of the PGA Championship, the final major of the 2018 season. Bellerive was designed by Robert Trent Jones in 1960 and was recently tweaked by his son, Rees Jones. The course has hosted two major championships: the 1965 U.S. Open, won by Gary Player, and the 1992 PGA Championship, won by Nick Price.
This year’s test is a long, tree-lined, par-70 course with plenty of water in play, cavernous sand bunkers and some of the largest greens one will ever see in professional golf. To give you an idea, the greens are roughly 2 1/2 times the size, on average, of the greens at Pebble Beach. Getting one’s ball close to the hole on approach and avoiding three putts will be two big factors this week because of this.
While we are on the topic of the greens, there is some concern coming out of the St. Louis area this week regarding the massive putting surfaces. The heat in the Midwest back in May was of record proportion and the greens at Bellerive have naturally suffered. From what we are hearing, most of the patchy, bumpy and stressed areas are located more around the remote or edge areas of the greens, whereas the heart or more “middle” portions are experiencing very little damage. While I guess there are some bad isolated spaces, most of the player comments are positive and nobody seems to think this is of a “U.S. Open” level burden.
Bellerive and its greens will welcome a little rain and cooler temperatures based on the overnight forecast leading up to the championship. This should soften up the course and give the players a chance to attack in Thursday’s opening round. While the style and design are very similar to last week’s venue, Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, it seems so too will be the weather pattern. On Tuesday and Wednesday prior to the WGC-Bridgestone, the course got some rain. As a result, Thursday’s opening-round scores were low. Ian Poulter led after Day 1 at 8-under par. Bellerive may produce a similar pattern of weather, course conditions and scores this week.
Firestone is another Robert Trent Jones product of a significant redesign, also taking place in 1960. Firestone has hosted three PGA Championships, and I feel it sets up as a great indicator for what we might expect this week. Total Driving, a combination of length and accuracy off of the tee, will be paramount. We spoke about getting one’s ball close to the hole on approach and avoiding three putts. Strong bunker play will matter, too. Some of the greenside bunkers are so big, golfers may find themselves with a somewhat blind, 60-yard shot to the flag. Ten of the last 11 PGA Champions finished in the top 22 the week prior at Firestone. Four of the last six winners came from the final two pairings on the Sunday prior at Firestone. This year, the final two groups at the WGC-Bridgestone consisted of Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Justin Thomas and Ian Poulter. Two more recent trends: 16 of the last 19 PGA Championship winners had a win earlier in the same season and seven of the last 10 have ranked 25th in the world or better.
My Favorites, My Contender and My Long Shots
Rory McIlroy (12-1) and Jason Day (20-1): McIlroy has won two PGAs and Day has one, winning back in 2015. Day seems to be a PGA Championship specialist with five top-10 finishes in just eight attempts. Bolstering this theory is the fact that he won at Quail Hollow this year at the Wells Fargo Championship, which was the host course for the PGA last season where Justin Thomas won and Day finished ninth. He is No. 1 on Tour in Strokes Gained: Putting and 22nd in Total Driving. McIlroy seems to be a Jones design specialist, having won at Firestone, Congressional and East Lake -- all undergoing extensive redesign by either Robert Trent or Rees Jones or both. Plus he finished third at the PGA Championship at Hazeltine in 2009, another Trent Jones design. He and Day both check all of the aforementioned trend boxes as well.
Webb Simpson (50-1): The question mark for Webb is the driver. His distance is average as is his accuracy but he is No. 1 on Tour in Scrambling, 19th in Strokes Gained: Approach, and sixth in Strokes Gained: Putting. He does nearly everything else extremely well and he did that earlier this season in winning the Players Championship. A 50-1 bet is pretty nice on the 20th best player in the world.
Thomas Pieters (100-1) and Aaron Wise (200-1): Pieters is from Belgium and plays primarily on the European Tour, but he wowed people at the Ryder Cup in 2016 when, as a rookie, he went 4-1-0 in his matches at Hazeltine, a Robert Trent Jones design and former PGA Championship course. He has tremendous length off of the tee and went to school at University of Illinois. He’ll be plenty familiar with the nearby St. Louis surroundings and the conditions. Wise is another big hitting youngster who is coming off of a sixth-place finish at the WGC-Bridgestone. He won the Byron Nelson earlier this season, ranks 12th on Tour in Total Driving and 19th in Putting Average. Gary Player and Nick Price, both with South African roots, both won majors at Bellerive. Wise was born 22 years ago in Cape Town.
Full Tournament Head-to-Head Matchups
Marc Leishman (-135) over Xander Schauffele
Rickie Fowler (-155) over Jon Rahm
Webb Simpson (-150) over Bubba Watson