Anything can happen in PGA Championship at Kiawah, where golf course is star of show

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In the quest to select the favorite for any major golf championship, most forecasters naturally follow the advice from the Claude Reins’ character Louis Renault in the movie “Casablanca” — they “round up the usual suspects.”

You know them. They occupy lofty places in the world rankings and are easily identifiable by first names — Rory or Bryson or Brooks, for example — or perhaps initials. Of the latter, DJ immediately comes to mind.

The oddsmakers follow that philosophy in looking toward the 2021 PGA Championship, set for Thursday through Sunday at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island.

Who can blame them?

Rory McIlroy won the 2012 PGA on the same golf course by eight strokes. And Dustin Johnson smashed the scoring records in the 2020 Masters. Bryson DeChambeau’s 2020 U.S. Open victory is one for the ages, and Brooks Koepka lives for the majors.

Says ESPN commentator and two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North in referring to McIlroy’s 2012 Ocean Course runaway: “Any time you win majors by six, eight shots, whatever it is, it’s ridiculous. That was in a stretch where it looked like he was going to do that all the time. ...

“To win any major championship, any tournament by one is some kind of feat, but when you do it by six or eight or whatever, that changes the whole dynamic of it.”

McIlroy served notice with his victory last weekend in the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte. Meanwhile, DJ — Dustin Johnson, No. 1 in the world golf rankings — has struggled since his Masters conquest in November.

“I just don’t know of late, but any time Dustin Johnson steps on the golf course, he’s a threat,” said Curtis Strange, another two-time U.S. Open winner who will work the ESPN telecasts during the PGA.

“You know, you don’t want to say this and put pressure on somebody or embellish too much, but DJ is one of those guys, along with Rory, that can win tournaments by many shots, and so therefore he doesn’t have to have to be hitting on all cylinders to win.”

Of course, Strange pointed out: “When you go to the Ocean Course, I think it’s best you’re hitting on all cylinders or (very) close. But I think that he’s so talented and so gifted athletically ... I think he’s a threat any time. Right now, I just don’t have really much of an opinion right now, other than historically he’s been very good.”

The key word: historically.

But did anyone mention Hideki Matsuyama prior to the Masters last month?

Ocean Course presents unique challenge

In looking at the PGA, North, Strange and Scott Van Pelt joined the media via Zoom video call to ponder the possibilities and all agreed on two facts: The Ocean Course will be the star of the show, and the wind will create havoc for the world’s best players.

Trying to figure which player will solve the golf course’s mystique adds to the anticipation. The ESPN trio provided a couple of factors to consider in making selections:

Familiarity with the Ocean Course. “That’s the benefit (for McIlroy) because there aren’t a whole lot of guys that have played there,” Van Pelt said. “It’s a decade ago. I was looking at the list: (Justin) Rose is on it, Adam Scott is on it. There’s a few players but not a ton.”

Style of play: “I’m really looking forward to seeing how the players try to attack this golf course,” North said. “People think, ‘Well, it’s a lot like the Open Championship. It’s a seaside, linksey kind of golf course.’ Well, no, it’s not because you’ve got raised greens and all these runoffs, and it’s hard to bounce the ball on the green there. I think a premier ball striker is going to have a great opportunity there.”

Assuming the wind blows as usual this time of year, ball control will be the key factor.

Most of today’s pros are high-ball hitters and, Strange said, those are “going to have to be extremely fortunate, lucky and very good to play in this kind of wind on this type of golf course where you’re going to have to flight your ball really low, work it against the wind, work it with the wind, judge runout. You’re going to have to use imagination. That’s the kind of guy” who will win.

Then again, North said: “A low-ball hitter is going to have difficulty getting the ball on the greens. It’s not like St. Andrews where you can bounce the ball 40 yards short of the green and get it to get up here. You can’t do that here. It’s going to run off into the junk half the time. ...

“I think this is a week that you’re going to have to make 15-footers for par saves more than a few times ... you can’t just be a good ball striker this week.”

McIlroy’s slump-ending victory in Charlotte boosted him to the favorite’s role at about 10-to-1 among most oddsmakers. The next group, at 12-1, includes Johnson, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas. DeChambeau and Jordan Spieth are 14-1 at VegasInsider with Koepka and Xander Schauffele following at 16-1.

Schauffele gets some love from the television crew, and defending champion Collin Morikawa (22-1) has a game “that fits pretty nicely” in North’s vision of what’s required to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday.

“I don’t know the exact number who have never seen this place before, so it’s going to be interesting,” Strange said. “You talk about (outstanding ball-strikers) like that, I immediately go to some European Tour players just because they play in different type of conditions. I think Patrick Reed (from the U.S.) is one of those tough guys. Tyrrell Hatton, there’s a guy, Tommy Fleetwood, guys like that that can play in tougher conditions than chasing the sun on the PGA Tour.”

No matter, North said: “It’s going to be fun. I think it’s going to be as enjoyable a major as we’ve gone to for a while because anything could happen.”

When is the 2021 PGA championship, how to watch

Where: The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort at Kiawah Island, South Carolina

TV: 1-7 pm Thursday-Friday (ESPN), then 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. (ESPN) and 1-7 pm Saturday-Sunday (CBS)

Streaming: ESPN.com, CBSSports.com and the ESPN app

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