Johnson the man to beat as long hitters eye Bellerive

Dustin Johnson won his only career major at the 2016 US Open. (Reuters pic)

ST LOUIS: Dustin Johnson is the favorite to win the PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club this week where the long hitters will be at home in the final major of the year.

A course stretching to 7,547 yards, wide fairways, and soft greens will give the big bombers the advantage they did not always enjoy at last month’s Open Championship on the parched fairways at Carnoustie.

Johnson, fellow Americans Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka, Englishmen Justin Rose and Tommy Fleetwood, and Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy loom as the main contenders.

Less likely to triumph, but sure to attract plenty of attention all the same, are Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth, who can achieve the ‘career Grand Slam’.

Woods did not play well in Akron last week and Bellerive is not really up his alley. A decade removed from his 14th, and most recent, major victory, he is better suited these days to courses that demand subtlety and shot-making.

Spieth also played poorly in Akron, and he too does not appear to be a good match for Bellerive.

Johnson is not number one in the world by accident, but he is not quite the closer in majors that he is in regular tournaments.

Another near-miss at the US Open in June, where he finished third after a pedestrian final round, resurrected nagging doubts about his ability to seal the deal.

The 2016 US Open remains his only major victory, though he has been in contention often enough to have plenty of silverware.

McIlroy, meanwhile, has plenty of championship-winning golf left in him but needs to win a major on a firm and difficult track to shed the reputation of being a player who only plays well when conditions are favourable.

McIlroy’s four major titles have all come on rain-softened courses where he could bomb away his driver and attack with his irons.

Apart from the usual suspects, another player worth keeping close tabs on is American Tony Finau, who has finished in the top 10 in all three majors this year.

A prodigiously long hitter, Finau is the third-longest driver on the PGA Tour this year.

Bellerive’s Zoysia grass fairways invariably offer perfect lies.

A modest but not particularly deep rough will sometimes penalise errant drives, while the greens, which need to be watered this time of year to keep them alive, should allow players to fire fearlessly at the pins.

Englishman Ross Fisher says the greens are “unusually slow for a major, very soft”, but all in all, he likes what he sees.

“The fairways are 40-50 yards wide so if you miss the fairway you know you’re driving it poorly this week,” the world number 46 told Reuters after playing the front nine on Monday.

Five-time major winner Phil Mickelson predicts a low winning score.

“The greens you can make a lot of putts, the fairways are pristine, the ball just sits up beautifully, and around the greens you can spin your chip shots, and get them close, so I feel like you can attack the golf course,” he said on Sunday.