US PGA Championship: Ben Coley reflects on the third round at Bellerive

Golf’s Usual Suspects, Tiger’s struggles to finish off a big move up the leaderboard and sparks from Jordan Spieth – all in Ben Coley’s day three recap.

The Usual Suspects

Fowler, Johnson*, Day, Woods, Molinari, Thomas, Rahm, Koepka. The usual suspects, one or two absentees and exceptions aside. Bring together the best players in the world, hand them a what-you-see-is-what-you-get golf course, and chances are one of them will win.

Perhaps it will again be Brooks Koepka, the two-shot leader, the Keyser Soze of the group. Quiet, ruthless, terrifying; a think-on-your-feet monster who will take your soul while you’re busy worrying about Dustin Johnson or Justin Thomas or Dean Keaton. Once that happens, your number is up. Kevin Kisner had no chance.

Koepka remains on course to win his third major – level with Spieth, one off McIlroy, two off Mickelson. Ahead, at 28, of Miller, Singh, Langer and Olazabal, two clear of Johnson. He is a major golfing machine, able to peak four times a year, every year; not only that, but to seize every reasonable opportunity. At least, he has so far.

And what’s utterly bizarre about all of this is that he doesn’t appear to care. Koepka doesn’t particularly like golf, he doesn’t watch it, and you suspect he’d rather be a star quarterback but for the fact that he’d have to rely on inferior members of the species for success in a team sport.

It’s that which makes him easy to underestimate and all the more deadly, because while he may not obsess about the sport, he is deeply competitive – helped, no doubt, by having a younger brother who is very handy himself – and he likes to show off. Just why he hasn’t captured public imagination like his peers has been discussed elsewherebut therein lies another weapon: he doesn’t care and he doesn’t worry about how he is perceived.

So are there any chinks in the armour? Is there hope for the chasing pack? Only that he made some mistakes coming in and is now within touching distance of a collection of wonderful players, major champions of the past or, surely, the future. One of this bunch, it is all but guaranteed, will at least get him under pressure.

Koepka is, though, a confident front-runner who wins almost whenever he has that opportunity, and he’s played 51 of 54 holes this week in par or better. Bellerive is no major championship course, but this is ultimately a major championship and that is some return.

His assault on this golf course has been relentless and shows no sign of letting up. He seems sure to make and take opportunities, and those hoping that more mistakes creep in should know that the area of greatest improvement in his game this year has been in bogey average – he’s up from 142nd to 11th. Oh, and he leads the PGA Tour in final-round scoring.

Like that, he’s gone.

Grip it and rip it

Taking nothing away from those in contention, this has been golfing monotony, hit it hard and hit it high. The course is unremarkable, conditions are unhelpful, and what we’re seeing as a result is a highlights reel of stock shots. Nobody has been taken out of their comfort zone or asked a question to which the answer isn’t easy to find.

The toughest decision Koepka has had to make is probably whether to hit iron or driver off the 11th tee, and he’s only been asked that once, in round two. He’s taken on holes others have not, such as the first, and he’s driven the ball spectacularly well, but nothing from the course has been nagging away at him, asking again whether he’s absolutely certain the risk he’s taking is worthwhile.

Carnoustie’s greens were softer than ideal this year, but still the course asked stern questions. So too did Shinnecock, and had the USGA not played games again on Saturday that would’ve been perhaps a greater test than the Open Championship. Apropos of nothing, had they done so perhaps Koepka would not have won.

Bellerive needed these questions to be interesting, so it needed a more forward tee at the 11th, a shovel taking to the third and the 10th to play as a par-five. I’m not sure even that would’ve been enough. No hole here will linger in the memory. Thankfully, next year’s edition will take place at Bethpage. Pray for a dry May.

Fade away

Prior to the tournament, Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee was among those to intimate that players who hit the ball left-to-right would find themselves at a serious disadvantage, with the vast majority of doglegs at Bellerive shaping from right-to-left.

There was plenty of sense in that idea. The trouble is, when balls stop where they land, all angles become irrelevant. It’s another reason why golf is far more interesting under firm conditions, when what the ball does when it lands is of equal or even greater importance to what it does in flight.

Here, at Bellerive, Koepka has hit a fade off just about every tee, because he knows roughly where those shots will land, and he therefore knows roughly where his ball will end up. It comes back to the idea of forcing decisions and, unfortunately, rain on a parkland golf course helps take them away.

Meanwhile, Tiger Woods’ front-nine charge was one of the highlights of the day, but once again he failed to sustain the effort. Woods parred home from the ninth and gave away the opportunity to apply pressure to Koepka, either through his proximity on the leaderboard or by earning the right to play with him on Sunday, an experience the leader is yet to meet.

Truth be told, Woods has simply found the front side to his liking all week – he’s 10-under with one bogey, versus two-over with four bogeys and a double on the back. Remember, he started this week on the 10th tee, making a good putt for bogey before running up a double on the 11th.

The details of how he came to this score and this position are secondary, though, to the metre of his effort: just as he’d earned the right to be considered a potential winner, he stalled. It’s a frustrating habit, one he desperately needs to shake if he’s to win his first major in more than a decade.

Tiger Woods - made perfect start on Saturday

Tiger Woods stumbled towards the end of the third round

Hang the DJ

Dustin Johnson has won three times this year. There’s little doubt, that in certain fields and on certain courses, he can control tournaments in a way nobody else can. Take the Canadian Open as a fine recent example; DJ was three back at halfway, but even before teeing off for the third round victory appeared fairly certain.

Johnson was also three back at halfway in the PGA Championship, but after a perfect drive down the first, everything went wrong. A poor wedge approach meant for a humdrum par, and things got worse until he was missing four-foot putts and taking penalty drops. When the scores were counted he’d fallen from fourth to 21st.

This won’t linger in his mind, just like his US Open performance didn’t, but perhaps it should linger in ours.

Comeback player of the year…

…do they still hand one out? If so, chances are it goes to a certain Tiger Woods, given that he’s actually come back from something rather than just played a little better than he had during the previous season. Quite right, too.

But in any other year, perhaps there would be a case for Stewart Cink. Almost a decade on from his last win of any kind, the sun-creamed 45-year-old has climbed back inside the world’s top 100 thanks to a pair of top-five finishes and a string of strong performances, which now extends to contending in a major once more.

It took many of us a long time to get over what Cink did to Tom Watson in 2009, and perhaps it took Cink even longer. He’s now playing some of the best golf of his life and there are events – the Wyndham, the RSM Classic – which have thrown up opportunities for similar players. Watch out for him in both.

Jordan sparks

After a nightmare seven at the 12th hole on Saturday, it’s unlikely that Spieth will hit the frame in this tournament and at no stage has he really looked like completing the career grand slam with victory – not even when charging to an outward 31.

But, if you’re willing to see them, there have been more signs that he’s getting back on track. Most tellingly, he’s putted better in each round and now figures well inside the top 10 and the way he curled in a 20-foot opportunity at the eighth hole certainly reminded me of years gone by.

Rory McIlroy ended a frustrating 2016 with a bang, everything clicking just in time for him to steal the TOUR Championship and, with it, the FedEx Cup, having earlier won the Deutsche Bank. Call me blindly optimistic or blithely disrespecting of money, but I still think he has fireworks in him this year. That’s a Jordan Sparks song, right? What do you mean it’s Jordin? Oh forget it.

Lyle and Scott

And finally, it’s fantastic and not unexpected that an Australian player finds himself in the final group. It’s not Jason Day, the most fancied and most dangerous of them all, but somehow that also makes sense. Adam Scott has found his best major performance in five years, playing with a heavy heart and a clear mind.

Should his putter somehow hold up, should he reel in an imperious front-runner, it would be a fitting tribute to Jarrod Lyle, a man of extraordinary bravery who lost his life last week. Whoever wins, it’s only golf.

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