PGA Championship: Back to Baltusrol – Nicklaus’ happy hunting ground

The U.S. PGA Championship is very much the fourth of golf’s four major tournaments, and the decision to hold it just two weeks after the British Open has not raised its prestige.

In fact, it will now clash with this week’s Women’s British Open at Woburn — helping neither event’s attempts to get more exposure.

The PGA’s usual mid-August slot has been taken by the first Olympic event in 112 years, but there is still plenty at stake for the players teeing off at Baltusrol Golf Club on Thursday.

As well as the chance to become only the 216th player to win a major tournament since the first back in 1860, Sunday’s champion will take home $1.8 million plus 600 FedEx Cup points — which could be enough to secure a place in the PGA Tour’s lucrative end-of-season playoffs.

Who’ll be there?

Pretty much everyone — except Tiger Woods.

Though many of the world’s top male golfers have pulled out of the Rio Olympics, most of them citing concerns about the Zika virus, there will be a full array of the game’s stars lining up for a crack at the season’s final major.

After this tournament, there will be just three PGA Tour events remaining in which to earn one of the 125 places for the FedEx Cup playoffs, and only two for those going to Brazil — where there will be no points or prize money on offer.

Woods, a four-time PGA champion, has missed all four majors this year due to his long-term back problems.

The defending champion

Jason Day won his first major title at Whistling Straits last year, denying Jordan Spieth his third success of 2015 in golf’s four elite tournaments.

The Australian has reclaimed the No. 1 ranking from the American this year, winning three tournaments — including the prestigious Players Championship — and finishing top 10 at the Masters and U.S. Open before a relatively lowly finish of tied 22nd at Royal Troon this month.

Day will be hoping to end the run of three first-time major winners that has followed his success 11 months ago.

“I never really look at it as defending,” he said after Monday’s practice round. “I try to win it again. That’s the mentality.”

The main contenders

Dustin Johnson — The American is ranked No. 2 but is arguably in hotter form than Day, finishing tied for second at last weekend’s Canadian Open to be top of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup rankings.

After tying for fourth at the Masters, the 32-year-old won his first major at the U.S. Open, triumphed at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and was equal ninth at the British Open.

Henrik Stenson — The Swede won his first major title at Troon with a -20 score that matched Day’s 2015 PGA record and was the lowest overall total at a major, and has the depth of experience to mean that shouldn’t be a one-off.

Now ranked fifth, the 40-year-old has previously been as high as No. 2. He made history in 2013 when he became the first golfer to top both the U.S. and European Tour money lists in the same season, and won both flagship finales for a “double double.”

Phil Mickelson — The veteran American triumphed the only other time the PGA has been played at Baltusrol in 2005 — the second of his five major titles — and “Lefty” will be looking to bounce back after his final-day tussle with Stenson at Troon.

The 46-year-old’s second-placing was his best result this season, having missed the cut at the Masters, Players Championship and U.S. Open, but he also has five other top-five finishes.

Rory McIlroy — The former No. 1 has rarely seemed in contention this year but was top 10 at the British Open and the Masters, plus two of the World Golf Championship events.

You wouldn’t rule out the Northern Irishman’s chances of lifting the Wanamaker Trophy for the third time come Sunday.

Jordan Spieth — The young American has, perhaps understandably, not been able to maintain last year’s stratospheric form — but nonetheless has won two PGA Tour titles and tied for second at Augusta.

Turning 23 on Wednesday, he’ll be wanting to prove some of his critics wrong and give himself the perfect birthday present.

An outsider to watch

Andrew “Beef” Johnston was a crowd favorite at Troon as he finished eighth in just his second appearance at a major, lifting him to 88th in the rankings.

The heavily-bearded Brit — nicknamed because of a particularly bushy childhood hairdo — has since signed an endorsement deal with a U.S. fast-food restaurant.

Big-hitting John Daly is also in the field, thanks to his 1991 success at Crooked Stick, but the popular American has not made the halfway cut at a major since tying for 18th at the 2012 PGA.

What they’re saying

“I’m really confident in the game right now. I feel like everything is going really well.” Dustin Johnson.

“Out of all the majors the U.S. PGA is usually the fairest because the weather doesn’t usually play a massive factor. The golf course setup isn’t ridiculously penal like a U.S. Open.” Masters champion Danny Willett, who will play the first two rounds with Johnson and Stenson.

“It’s a big golf course, it’s unique in that you see 16 holes before you see a par-five if you’re teeing off on the front nine … I consider it one of the top American golf courses.” Jordan Spieth on Baltusrol’s 7,428-yard, par-70 Lower layout.

“The driver will be a key club this week, you have to drive the ball straight — but it doesn’t have to be long. The great thing about Baltusrol is that the front of the greens are always open.” Phil Mickelson hopes to bring his fine form on the Scottish links to Springfield.

“Who doesn’t like candy and fudge and ice cream? I’m spending the most money in there.” Two-time Masters champ Bubba Watson on his new candy store, Bubba’s Sweet Spot.

The venue’s grim past

Baltusrol, founded in 1895, has two 18-hole layouts. Its Lower Course, created in a major redevelopment in 1922, is the one most regularly used for major tournaments — Jack Nicklaus won the U.S. Open there in 1967 and 1980.

Golf’s legendary “Golden Bear” has called it one of his favorite venues. It has a plaque on the 18th fairway commemorating his famous 1-iron shot at the final hole 49 years ago, plus a monument to the 18-time major winner’s achievements.

Situated in Springfield, New Jersey, Baltusrol is one of only four U.S. golf courses to have been registered as a National Historic Landmark, along with Merion’s East Course, Oakmont and Pinehurst No. 2. Deer roam the grounds, so regular licensed culls are necessary.

It is named after Dutch farmer Baltus Roll, who was brutally murdered on the land the club now occupies in 1831. It was turned into a golf club by New Yorker Louis Keller, a non-golfer best known for publishing the Social Register of elite families.

The championship course was redesigned as two 18-hole layouts — Upper and Lower — but Keller died just before the 1922 reopening. Both have staged major tournaments.

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