By Nicola Kenton
- The final major of 2018 will be played at the Bellerive Country Club in Missouri
- Defending champion Justin Thomas heads into tournament amongst favourites following Bridgestone Invitational win
- The USPGA provides the final opportunity for players to automatically earn their spots on the US Ryder Cup team
ST LOUIS, MISSOURI – The final golf major of the year is here and with the Ryder Cup on the horizon, who will be victorious at the Bellerive Country Club?
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What do we know about the course?
The Bellerive Country Club in Missouri is the host of the 100th PGA Championship. The country club has previously hosted two majors: the 1965 US Open, where Gary Player was victorious in a play-off, and the 1992 PGA Championship when Zimbabwean Nick Price won his first major. The course has also hosted the BMW Championship, FedEx Cup play-offs, the US Senior Open and the Senior PGA Championship.
The course plays over 7000 yards and many long-hitters will be hoping to benefit. However, many of the players are coming into this final major trying to protect their bodies after a long season. Justin Rose, who tied second at the Open Championship, has not played since Carnoustie because of a slight back injury and with the FedEx Cup and Ryder Cup still to come. Rose told BBC Sport:
“I have walked each nine and got some good visuals. I hit some balls on Wednesday and felt absolutely fine and really comfortable with my swing and the way it’s moving. This golf course, the way it’s set up and the way it’s playing and the condition of it has afforded me… if there was ever a major championship, to be able to play it semi-blind, this is the course to do it on.”
Can Molinari follow up in St Louis..?
The man going into form ahead of the Open Championship was Francesco Molinari and the Italian managed to hold onto his game and secure a two-shot victory at Carnoustie. The course played differently to usual, the weather conditions played a part and many big names missed the cut. Links golf is not a strength of Molinari, who played at the John Deere Classic the week before instead of at the Scottish Open, but that proved to be a good move. In a weakened field, the Italian could practice specific parts of his game and finished tied for second.
The Italian had a solid first two days carding a one-under and one-over par to take him into the weekend on level par. However, it was on Saturday that Molinari made his move up the leaderboard when the Italian carded a seven-under-par round to put him into the final groups on Sunday. Molinari didn’t panic in his final round and when others faltered, he stepped up to finish on eight-under-par and become the first Italian professional golfer to win a major.
Having won three tournaments this year, Molinari has all but secured his place on the European Ryder Cup team. The Italian has been on two previous winning teams, he made his debut at Celtic Manor in 2010 and was part of the Miracle at Medinah in 2012. Molinari also broke the streak of Americans winning major tournaments – they had won five in-a-row – but now hopes that another European will step up and win the PGA.
…Or will McIlroy and Rose figure?
Carnoustie saw two Brits have contrasting tournaments but finish tied for second place. Rory McIlroy had a solid start to the tournament carding two rounds of 69 to be four-under-par at the halfway stage. The weekend provided countless opportunities and some players took advantage but the Northern Irishman could not capitalise and finished the weekend with two rounds of 70. Six-under-par was a good score in the clubhouse but it wasn’t enough for McIlroy as Molinari claimed his first major by two shots. McIlroy told BBC Sport:
“I’ve kept giving myself chances this year. I haven’t closed out those tournaments as I would have liked, but at least I’m putting myself in position, and that’s all I can do. I’ve played in a lot of final groups and I haven’t played well enough when it’s counted, so I’m just trying to figure out what I need to do to make that little step from contending and getting into final groups to lifting trophies.”
The other Brit to finish second was Justin Rose, who had a remarkable comeback at Carnoustie. In the opening two rounds the Englishman struggled and made a birdie on the 18th of his second round to make the cut for the weekend. Saturday proved fruitful for the world number three, as Rose carded a 64 while he remained solid on Sunday to finish tied for second. Both players have all but guaranteed themselves a place on the Ryder Cup team and will be hoping to continue their strong form all the way until the end of September.
Justin Thomas looking to defend title
It was a disappointing Open Championship for Justin Thomas. The American could not make the best of his game around Carnoustie and missed the cut. However, the 2017 PGA Champion came out fighting at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last weekend and won the tournament by four shots ahead of compatriot Kyle Stanley.
Thomas won his first major at last year’s PGA Championship where he finished two shots ahead of Francesco Molinari, Louis Oosthuizen and Patrick Reed. It was a breakout year for the American who also won the FedEx Cup last season. 2018 has seen Thomas climb to the top of the world rankings for the first time and has been consistently in the top three in the world.
On Thursday, Thomas will take to the course alongside former PGA Champions Tiger Woods and McIlroy. The American will be hoping to defend his title, becoming only the second person to do this since Woods last completed the double 2006 and 2007 – having won back-to-back in 1999 and 2000.
Ryder Cup places on the line
The 2018 Ryder Cup takes place in France at the end of September but for the US team, this weekend provides the final chance to automatically qualify onto the team. Eight automatic spots are up for grabs and the USPGA is the final event from which the US players can earn points.
The points system for the US team is based on 2018 PGA Tour events alongside the four majors and the likes of Dustin Johnson, Reed, Thomas and Brooks Koepka have already confirmed their place. There are an additional four wildcard places on the team and a good performance at Bellerive may give the likes of Woods, Tony Finau and Bryson Dechambeau a chance to compete in late September.
Qualifying for the European team is slightly different with points being split between the European Points list and the World Points list. The top four players from each list will be chosen – unless they have already been qualified from the other list. Furthermore, the USPGA is not the final chance for the players to earn their place; captain Thomas Bjorn has stated that the Made in Denmark tournament, which finishes on the 2nd September, is the last chance to earn points. Consequently, the USPGA still provides an opportunity for points but more importantly a chance to improve form and earn a wildcard place.
The USPGA kicks off on Thursday 9th August with the final round taking place on Sunday 12th August 2018.
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