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Kiawah Island06A

After a few relatively quiet post-Masters weeks, the second major championship of the year is finally upon us with the 103rd playing of the PGA Championship at The Ocean Course @ Kiawah Island near Charleston, SC. With the obvious exception of Tiger Woods (still recovering from his auto accident), all of the game's best will be on hand to tackle what is sure to be a stern challenge across the sandy shores of South Carolina. Collin Morikawa will be defending the title he won at TPC Harding Park last year, but many will consider Rory McIlroy to be a defending champion in his own right as he won the last playing of the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island back in 2012.

The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island is no stranger to staging events that host the game's greatest players. In addition to the 2012 PGA Championship that McIlroy won by an astonishing eight shots, the Pete Dye design also hosted the famous 1991 Ryder Cup Matches that were dubbed "the War by the Shore." Many consider that playing of the biennial matches  to be the turning point in the history of the event as the contentious battle between the U.S. and Europe that week set the tone for the hotly contested battles that would follow over the following three decades. Both teams traded punches for three days on the brutal layout before the outcome came down to the final hole in the final singles match between Hale Irwin and Bernhard Langer. The German stalwart had a six foot par putt at eighteen that would have won the matches for Europe, but he missed on the low side and the Americans brought the cup back home for the first time since 1983.

The Field and the Favorites

It's no surprise that Rory McIlroy (+1200) will enter the week as the betting favorite just slightly ahead of a cadre of contenders stacked behind him in the range of +1500 to +1700. Rory would have been well off of anyone's radar coming into this championship until just a few weeks ago when the Northern Irishman prevailed at Quail Hollow for his first win in roughly eighteen months. Prior to that unexpected victory in the Wells Fargo Championship (at a course where he had already won twice), McIlroy had strung together a pair of missed cuts at huge events like the PLAYERS Championship and the Masters Tournament. He had picked up a new swing coach (Pete Cowen) and by all accounts (including his own) he had gone adrift with his golf swing. That win a few weeks ago has completely changed the narrative and now Rory comes into the week as the favorite to win at a course he dominated nearly a decade ago.

The group lined up behind Rory on the board includes Jon Rahm (+1500), Jordan Spieth (+1500), Justin Thomas (+1500), Dustin Johnson (+1600) and Bryson Dechambeau (+1700). Among that group of five, our view is that there are two strong choices (Spieth/Thomas), two obvious fades (Johnson/Dechambeau) and one total unknown (Rahm). 

Jordan Spieth's year has followed an arc not too dissimilar from that of Rory McIlroy as the Texan was nearly left for dead coming into 2021. He hadn't won since 2017 and had fallen all the way to 92nd in the world after reaching the top of the rankings back in 2015. However, he started stringing together some good finishes on the West Coast and slowly but surely developed some life in the run up to the Masters. His journey back to the game's upper echelons culminated with a win at the Valero Texas Open in his home state and was backed up with a T3 finish the following week at Augusta National. He led after the first round last week at the AT&T Byron Nelson and all signs point to his being a contender again this week.

Spieth's good friend and frequent foil Justin Thomas is another player who we like going into this week. Kiawah Island is a difficult golf course that demands precision both off the tee and into the greens and there may be no better iron player on the PGA TOUR than Justin Thomas. He can maneuver the golf ball with the best of them (see his head-high screaming draw at 16 on Sunday en route to a win at TPC Sawgrass) and has one of the best heads for the game of golf as well. Both of these ingredients should serve him in good stead at the Ocean Course as Pete Dye designs are known for the premium they place on thinking your way around the golf course. His dominant performance in the PLAYERS Championship (also a Dye design) certainly validates this premise, but his failure to finish in the top ten in his last four starts is one potential cause for concern here. Nevertheless, if Thomas' putter cooperates (which it hasn't lately), we expect him to be in the mix come Sunday.

We're fading Dustin Johnson and Bryson Dechambeau this week for distinctly different reasons. In the case of Dustin Johnson, it's hard to shake the feeling like something is just plain not right with him at the moment. For starters, he withdrew from the AT&T Byron Nelson last week with some concerns over the health of his knee. Longer term, he had been the hottest player in golf coming into 2021 after a stretch of incredible golf that culminated in a win at the fall edition of the 2020 Masters Tournament. However, he has cooled significantly in the time since then and has now gone six events in a row without a top ten finish. He didn't have a ton of success in the last playing of the PGA Championship here (a T-48 finish) and there are just too many better bets at the top of the board for us to put too much enthusiasm behind the world's number one ranked player.

Bryson Dechambeau has shown more form lately than DJ has, but we're opting to back off of him this week as we don't see The Ocean Course as a particularly great fit for the most enigmatic player in the game. Instinctively, the length of the golf course should make for an advantage as Dechambeau hits it farther than anyone. However, much of his length is derived from his incredible carry distances and we don't feel that his high ball flight will serve him well this week. One dynamic at Kiawah Island is that both the prevailing and alternate winds blow across a number of the holes (rather than down or into) and it will be extremely difficult to figure out your starting lines when your ball spends as much time in the air as Bryson's does. Morever, misses at Kiawah Island are greeted with a lot more trouble than at most golf courses and we don't think that Bryson will be able to overcome the consequences derived from the inevitable foul balls he's destined to hit off the tee in a given week.

The Golf Course

The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island is as dramatic a golf course as we've seen for the PGA Championship since Whistling Straits back in 2015. It has a number of linksy properties, including its setting amidst the sandy dunes adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean and its figure-eight out-and-back routing along the shore. As mentioned above, the setting makes for a lot of windy days and the routing makes for maddening crosswinds both off the tee and into the greens. Depending on how hard it blows, players may find themselves having to aim tee shots into serious trouble (e.g. the dunes) in the hopes that a well-shaped shot will ride the wind back into the fairway. This can make for extreme discomfort off the tee and a player who isn't driving the ball well will find themselves unlikely to get away with it for very long at Kiawah Island.

Another dynamic at Kiawah Island is the frequency of pushed-up greens that repel shots along their outer edges and punish the marginally-played effort. While the course does have some properties of links golf, this feature of many of its greens is most certainly not one such property as there are quite a few holes where the pushed-up green simply will not accept a shot along the ground. This also adds to the difficulty around the greens as recovery efforts will have to contend with steep upslopes between the player and the hole. Those can be tackled by putting the ball up the hill, bumping the ball into the slope or lofting a wedge up and onto the green. All three options will require superb touch and a quality short game will definitely be an asset this week.

The Third Green @ The Ocean Course
A view of the pushed-up third green.

There are a number of key holes we could highlight at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, but there are three in particular that are the most dangerous on the golf course and should be huge difference makers between the contenders and the also-rans at this week's PGA Championship. The first two of these three are the consecutive long four-par holes at the twelfth (484 yards) and thirteenth (497 yards). The two holes look and feel very similar as both run alongside a canal that juts up against their right side and sneaks up right next to the greensite for both holes. Players should expect the hole locations over the weekend to sidle up next to the canal's edge and an advantage both off the tee and into the green should exist for the player most comfortable moving the ball from left-to-right.

The Thirteenth Green @ Kiawah Island (Ocean)
A view from the left side of the thirteenth green.

The seventeenth hole will loom large throughout the course of the week as the tee shot at the 227 yard par-three is easily the scariest shot the players will face at the Ocean Course. The hole is played entirely over water to a green that angles out into the water from the front-left to the back-right. Attempts to bail out left will be met by a pair of bunkers from where recovery shots will be played downhill to pretty much every potential hole location. With the wind up, this hole was an absolute beast in the 1991 Ryder Cup and winning holes with bogies and doubles was anything but uncommon. Nearly no match (especially in the four-balls) managed to avoid at least one ball in the water at seventeen and Colin Montgomerie managed to win a key hole in his singles match on Sunday with a double-bogey to beat the triple-bogey of Mark Calcavecchia.

The Seventeenth at the Ocean Course
The dangerous seventeenth greensite.

Fortunately, the weather does not bring a whole lot of uncertainty coming into championship week. Temperatures should hover around the 80 degree mark with a couple of days in the high 70s and a few days in the low 80s. All four days should be devoid of rain, but none will be devoid of wind as persistent breezes of 10-20 miles an hour should be consistent throughout the week. Saturday may provide a little bit of respite from the wind, but it should pick back up on Sunday and play a fairly significant role in the outcome of the Final Round. At least three of the four days the wind should blow off the ocean, but it may turn a bit and come out of the W/SW come Sunday.