While it may be the least prestigious, this year’s battle for the Wanamaker Trophy is the Major that I’ve been most looking forward to. The course, Whistling Straits, is one of my favourites in the world, for reasons I shall explain shortly. Because this Major moves to a different venue each year, analysis of previous PGA results is of limited use. Better instead, to look back to the 2004 renewal, which was played at Whistling Straits.
That year saw one of the most exciting Majors of all time, with Vijay Singh landing his second PGA title after a three-way play-off against Justin Leonard and Chris Dimarco. There were 23 players within five of the winning total. Of the leading five, Singh and Ernie Els were very obvious. Leonard and Dimarco were both plausible 125/1 chances, with Riley at 200/1.
The best value was to be found in-running, however, with frequent fluctuations on the leaderboard producing ideal trading conditions. It is no coincidence that this layout was designed by Pete Dye, who also created that other gamblers’ favourite, Sawgrass. Dye clearly understands how to make a course exciting, mixing birdie opportunities alongside the ever-present threat of disaster.
Course and stats
Whistling Straits is an impressive attempt to replicate a Scottish links. Set against the backdrop of Lake Michigan, the layout has rough terrain, massive sand dunes and a plethora of deep pot bunkers. The finish here is particularly tough, with any number possible over the final two holes. Just as at Sawgrass, the 17th is a par 3 with water in play, although at 225 yards this one is longer. Wind is a constant threat, though the advanced forecast predicts a calm week.
At 7,500 yards, it is a long par 72, including four par 4s over 480 yards and a 600-yard par-5. However, that 2004 result suggests power offers no advantage, as neither Leonard, Dimarco, nor several other challengers, were big-hitters. Almost all contenders were top-class scramblers, and inaccuracy was severely penalised. For me, the key stats to follow are driving accuracy, greens in regulation and scrambling.
2pts ew STEVE STRICKER @ 25/1 (GENERAL)
Playing in his home state of Wisconsin, the world number four rates the man to beat in my view, and not just because his three ‘superiors’ are respectively in crisis, struggling for accuracy and injured. Stricker’s performance to finish ninth at Firestone was particularly eyecatching, in so far as for once, his putter went cold. Nobody hit more greens in regulation which, having only played twice since winning the John Deere Classic, confirmed he is back to his best after injury. The PGA is the Major where he’s come closest, when finishing second in 1998, so this admirable competitor’s time may finally have come.
1.5pts ew ERNIE ELS @ 33/1 (GENERAL)
What are we to make of Ernie? With 16 holes to go on Sunday, he was sharing favouritism before, yet again, folding under pressure. The temptation is to conclude that he’s a player in decline, but on the other hand he tops the Fedex Cup points list. Moreover, he came very close at the US Open and has contended in four of his last six cracks at the PGA, even when generally below his best. Ultimately, there remains no superior links exponent in the world than Els, who missed the play-off by one shot in 2004. Given the nature of this course, 33/1 is decent value.
1.5pts ew JIM FURYK @ 40/1 (TOTE, BETFRED, LADBROKES)
With 2004 play-off losers Justin Leonard and Chris Dimarco in mind, Furyk looks the ideal type for Whistling Straits. Short but straight off the tee, a high-class long iron player, one of the best scramblers, with a good Open Championship record. Nobody finished stronger at Firestone, where Furyk would have bettered 64 and sixth place on Sunday, were it not for an outrageous piece of misfortune on the 70th hole, when his approach hit the pin and ricocheted into the water.
1.5pts ew SEAN O’HAIR @ 40/1 (GENERAL)
Another of last week’s picks retains his place in the staking plan. It would be easy to criticise Sean for blowing the final day lead, but Firestone showed all week how hard it was to consolidate in front. That was his fifth top 15 in six starts; a run which now includes two Majors and a WGC event. He’s rock-solid from tee to green right now, and seems ideally suited by these tough, long courses. Plus he is one of the few Americans with a decent Open Championship record.
Now 30, one-time boy wonder Scott is now around the age where most Major champions make the breakthrough. With 17 professional titles, he is certainly prolific, but the Aussie’s Major record remains sparse. In addition to last week’s promising top ten, on a course where he’s tended to struggle previously, Adam’s case is strengthened by his ninth placed finish here in 2004. His best career win to date came on another Pete Dye design; Sawgrass.
0.5pts ew STEPHEN AMES @ 150/1 (GENERAL)
Ames is another whose finest hour came at Sawgrass, and he also made the top ten at Whistling Straits in 2004. The Canadian’s form is decent too, after consecutive top 25s and a 66 to close on Sunday. Odds of 150/1 looks decent value, especially with several firms offering six places for each-way bets.
0.5pt ew HEATH SLOCUM @ 200/1 (GENERAL, 300/1 TOTE)
Slocum’s last win came almost 12 months ago on a course that bares some resemblance to Whistling Straits. Liberty National, host to the Barclays Classic, is another par-72 links imitation, and produced a leaderboard packed with all the usual links candidates; Els, Harrington, Woods; plus Stricker for that matter. It would be no surprise to see correlation with that form. As now, he was a huge outsider that week, though his 2010 form is much better. This straight hitter was fourth at Sawgrass, during a good spell earlier this summer.