Baltusrol is last chance for 2016 major for McIlroy, Spieth


By Doug Ferguson

AP Golf Writer

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — Rory McIlroy took stock of his game and the shots required at Baltusrol and reached a most logical conclusion Tuesday. He believes the PGA Championship will be his best chance this year to win a major.

He overlooked the obvious. It now is his only chance this year to win a major.

McIlroy is not alone.

Except for the three players who have achieved the ultimate in golf this year by winning majors — Danny Willett at the Masters, Dustin Johnson at the U.S. Open and Henrik Stenson at the British Open — the PGA Championship is all they have left.

The focus starts with McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day. They began the year as the modern version of the “Big Three” because they had captured five of the previous six majors and took turns at No. 1 in the world ranking.

But they have come up empty in the majors — so far.

Spieth is feeling it as much as anyone, mainly because he nearly won them all a year ago with a major performance that ranked among the best ever. So when a question was posed to him Tuesday that expecting 20 more years like that would probably be a tough benchmark, Spieth leaned toward the microphone and interrupted.

“Probably?” he said.

Even with two victories and a chance at the Masters that he threw away with one bad swing at the wrong time, he has been noticeable in the last two majors by his absence from the leaderboard. Spieth, who turns 23 on Wednesday, had contended in five straight majors. He finished 13 shots behind in the U.S. Open and 22 shots behind at the British Open.

“I set my own expectations so high,” Spieth said. “So have I met them this year? Not yet.”

He still can.

So can Day, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour this year. Stenson’s victory at Royal Troon surely gave hope to players who have yet to win a major, from Sergio Garcia to Lee Westwood, from Rickie Fowler to Matt Kuchar.

Baltusrol was soaked with nearly 2 inches of rain overnight, though the Lower Course was in remarkably good shape for a full day of practice on Tuesday in sweltering conditions that only add to the pressure of players trying to break through.

McIlroy was especially optimistic given the length of Baltusrol, exceptionally long (7,462 yards) for a par 70 that doesn’t have a par 5 until the final two holes. He is among the top power players in the game, and his driving is aesthetically beautiful because of his balance.

That wasn’t lost on McIlroy as he blasted a 345-yard drive off the first tee in the Long Drive Competition and made his way around the course. He looks ready to go, and he will find out Thursday what kind of traction he has.

McIlroy was asked to describe his season in one word, and after some thought, settled on “neutral.”

That’s another way of saying he has been spinning his wheels.

“I feel there’s been times where I got a little bit of momentum, and then sort of got set back a little bit,” he said. “It’s been a little stop-start in a way. But it’s hard. I’m trying to stay as positive as I can. I feel like I am positive because my game is in good shape. But I guess just maybe running out of patience a little bit and trying to make it happen.

“I don’t know if there’s one word to describe this year,” he said. “But I think you get a sense of how I’ve felt about the year and trying to get better and trying to get my name in the mix, and hopefully I can do that this week.”

His record in the PGA Championship is in his favor. McIlroy has won the Wanamaker Trophy twice in the last four years, and he has three other finishes in the top 10. Even though he grew up in Northern Ireland, the American brand of golf suits him best. Baltusrol is big, and likely will be soft with the overnight rain, the steamy heat and the threat of thunderstorms.

McIlroy won the Irish Open before a home crowd this year. That was a big deal. He still has the FedEx Cup playoffs, which he has never won, and the Race to Dubai to complete the European Tour season. He struggled again when asked for a grade to his season, settling on better than a “B.”

“I could change that into an A-plus on Sunday,” he said. “There’s a lot of golf left, last major of the year. I want to give it my all to get in the mix and try to win another one of these things before I have to wait another eight months.”

By Doug Ferguson

AP Golf Writer

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