- Bellerive will be a striaghtforward test for the world's best at the PGA Championship this week. That doesn't mean we won't have an incredible leaderboard come Sunday afternoon.
ST. LOUIS—For Justin Thomas, the perks of being the defending PGA champion extend as far as the parking spot he’s been given at Bellerive this week. Other than that, the 25-year-old hasn’t had too much time to dwell on what it would be like to repeat, not as he tries to squeeze in a measure of rest and something approaching a round of golf before Thursday morning.
Thomas is coming off a dominant win at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where his 15-under total was good enough for a four-shot victory over second-place Kyle Stanley and the rest of the world’s best players. He took Monday off completely, hoping to get in a round on Tuesday. But as pop-up storms dogged the area for much of the day, Thomas wasn’t able to get out onto the course at all. On Wednesday after meeting with the media, he set out to squeeze in nine in the muggy afternoon heat, and that would be it. Thomas is as ready as he’ll ever be.
“In terms of managing expectations, at the end of the day, it’s still golf,” he said Wednesday. “It doesn’t matter if you won nine times the year before or haven’t won in three years.”
Earlier this summer, Thomas was able to get in 18 holes at the tournament’s media day, and he says that took the stress off the fact that playing time was hard to come by early this week. “The big thing about this course, from when I played media day, is it’s just a driving golf course, it seems like,” Thomas said. “If you drive it well, you can attack it a little bit, especially with the soft greens. With the rough, it’s going to be hard to make birdies from the rough, and being this soft, I assume it’s going to be a pretty low score that’s going to win this thing.”
“It’s right in front of you,” he added. “It’s not anything hidden or anything secret. It’s just ‘see fairway, hit fairway,’ and the pin’s going to be on one of the kind of tiers or mounds on the green.”
By Thomas’s telling, it’s the kind of course he could play well, should play well: one that will reward long, accurate drives and solid putting. And in August in St. Louis, where temperatures often top out in the high 90s, courses are well-watered; combine that with Tuesday’s rain, and the whole affair will be soft, slow—and utterly unsurprising to Thomas. Amid the complaints about Bellerive’s conditions, the Louisville native was unfazed. “You look at any place in this part of the country in August—this much humidity, this much rain—(the greens) are going to be softer, they’re going to be slower,” Thomas said. “It’s just the way it is. You’re not going to get greens like Augusta.”
Thomas tees off at 8:23 a.m. CT in a group alongside Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods—the only player who has accomplished what Thomas hopes to this week, winning back-to-back PGA Championships since the tournament went to stroke play 60 years ago. Both Thomas and McIlroy are among the early favorites to take home the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday, but Woods’s presence will drive what should be the day’s largest crowd. (In Vegas, Dustin Johnson has the best odds to win it all, at +800, followed by McIlroy at +1200 and Thomas at +1400.)
Going into the tournament, there’s been months of conjecture about the quality of Bellerive’s greens, which were re-sodded around the collars in the leadup to the event. On Tuesday, McIlroy said they look worse than they putt and slower than they’re actually playing, and he said that even in that morning’s rain, he felt like they were putting well. “I think the big thing is how the ball's going to react on the greens, because there's not a lot of, like, base underneath the grass and there's not a lot of root system,” McIlroy added. “So you're not going to see wedge shots spin a lot. You're going to see them stop dead, but you're also going to see a 6-iron stop dead.”
On Wednesday, the PGA’s chief championship officer Kerry Haigh acknowledged the work that had gone into the greens. “As many of you know, growing grass in St. Louis in August is pretty challenging with bentgrass," he said. “We are supremely happy where (the greens) are. As you know, we notified the players we wanted to build up slowly to getting them to where we need, knowing that Tuesday or certainly Monday was almost 100 degrees temperature with high humidity followed by yesterday, an inch and a half of rain. And that is sort of how growing grass in the Midwest is.”
This is not going to be a tournament of tacticians, where players spend days trying to corral the whims of a testy course. There won’t be many surprises, especially if the weather stays as hot and humid as it’s supposed to, although the course should dry out as the weekend proceeds. McIlroy predicted “quintessential target golf… where your ball lands where it’s going to really stay,” and that might be the case. But with this field and these stakes—Woods doing anything that approaches contending, Jordan Spieth threatening a career Grand Slam, Thomas eyeing a repeat, Johnson driving the daylight out of the ball—the final August PGA Championship before the event moves to May next year should still be a memorable one.