Tiger among stars in spotlight at PGA

Tiger Woods is among the hopefuls at the PGA Championship. Picture: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Tiger Woods is among the hopefuls at the PGA Championship. Picture: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

TIGER Woods, Rory McIlroy and a host of major champions began preparing Monday in opening practice rounds for the spotlight of supergroup pairings at the 100th PGA Championship.

An elite field gathers at Bellerive Country Club for the year's final major tournament with three-time major winner Jordan Spieth trying to complete a career grand slam and 14-time major champion Woods trying to end a 10-year major victory drought in his comeback from spinal fusion surgery.

Add in-form McIlroy, a four-time major winner who was a runner-up at the Open Championship, plus reigning major champion Patrick Reed from the Masters, two-time US Open winner Brooks Koepka and reigning Open Championship winner Francesco Molinari of Italy and it's clear to see why expectations are high for a thrill-packed final major of 2018.

"I like the way the PGA sets it up," Koepka said. "It's very difficult. It's a battle for sure."

Second-ranked defending champion Justin Thomas, Woods and McIlroy are grouped together for the first two rounds as are Molinari, Reed and Koepka.

World No.3 Justin Rose of England, Spain's seventh-ranked Jon Rahm and eighth-ranked Spieth play together the first two days as do top-ranked Dustin Johnson and past Masters winners Bubba Watson and Australian Adam Scott.

Adam Scott.
Adam Scott.

Thomas and Rose could overtake Johnson for world No.1 this week, but Rose would need a victory and Thomas no worse than a solo second finish.

The last August edition of the event before next year's move to May also has Thomas coming off a win at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational against a similar world-class field as this week's line-up.

"I'm just in a great place mentally right now," Thomas said. "I was just so patient and calm."

Since 1980, only two players have won the week before the PGA and then captured the Wanamaker Trophy, Woods in 2007 and McIlroy in 2014. And not since Woods in 2006-07 has anyone won the PGA in consecutive years.

"Tiger has been a pretty big influence for me. He motivated me to get where I am now," Thomas said.

"When you're nine or 10 and you're up there on the putting green, I was making putts to try to beat Tiger Woods in my head. So it's great to have him back now."

Tiger Woods is finding good form. Picture: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Tiger Woods is finding good form. Picture: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Woods briefly led on Sunday at the Open Championship before sharing sixth after his best final round in five years saw him share fourth at the US PGA National.

But 51st-ranked Woods hasn't seen Bellerive in 17 years so nine holes of practice each day will be critical in his search for an 80th career victory and his first in any event in five years.

"I'll take a look at the course for feel more than anything," Woods said.

"I need to get a feel for the golf course now and how the holes are playing. I need to get some reps on the greens and see what's there."

With a victory, Spieth would at age 25 join a select career grand slam list that includes Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen.

"When you have an opportunity to do that, certainly it weighs on you a little bit," Spieth said.

"All I can do is embrace the challenge."

Chile's 164th-ranked Joaquin Niemann, the youngest player in the field at 19, could become the youngest PGA Championship winner, breaking the mark set by a 20-year-old Sarazen in 1922.

Two-time major winner Zach Johnson is joined in the field by Zach J. Johnson, one of 20 club professionals in the field.