PGA Championship Preview: McIlroy can end his major famine at Valhalla's clash of in-form stars

We look ahead to the year’s second major, as McIlroy returns to the scene of his last major victory.

TO THE YEAR’S second major, and a Kentucky holiday from the decadence and depravity of professional golf. 

Valhalla is the stage for this week’s PGA Championship, and it is to where the world’s best players now scuttle from their various tours and parental leave to compete for the only currency about which the fans and the myth-makers actually care. 

charlotte-nc-may-12-rory-mcilroy-tees-off-on-the-11th-hole-during-the-final-round-of-the-wells-fargo-championship-at-quail-hollow-club-on-may-12-2024-in-charlotte-north-carolina-photo-by-david Rory McIlroy. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Gloriously, the biggest stars arrive in form.

Scottie Scheffler is threatening to put together a calendar year to rival Tiger Woods in 2000 – the 10-tournament, three-major run which he crowned at Valhalla – having won in four of his last five starts. Scheffler hasn’t played in three weeks, which cleared the PGA Tour field for Rory McIlroy, who won the Zurich Classic with Shane Lowry and then, more significantly, last week’s Wells Fargo at Quail Hollow. Brooks Koepka’s win at LIV Singapore means that Koepka, McIlroy, and Scheffler arrive at Valhalla having won in their most recent start. 

Let’s start with Rory because, come on, we always start with Rory. 

There is never a shortage of off-course saga and distraction ahead of a major nowadays, and this week has included the revelation that McIlroy filed for divorce in Florida on Monday morning, prior to flying to Valhalla. His right to privacy on this will likely be trampled over by his status and fame. 

When McIlroy raced down the gloamy 18th fairway of this golf course to make the par he needed to win a decade ago, it was implausible to believe he wouldn’t win another major until now. Back then, McIlroy zoomed to the end of a weather-ruptured tournament to forestall a Monday finish. It wasn’t to avoid another nervy night sleeping on the leaderboard but simply because he was a man in a rush. He had won the Open a few weeks earlier and his first couple of majors across the previous three years, so it made sense: the quicker McIlroy moved, the more he would win. 

And then the fickle fates yelled stop. A decade on McIlroy says he is a much better golfer, and while he has remained astonishingly consistent, he hasn’t got in done in the majors. He hasn’t put himself in contention often enough across the fallow decade, and has either led or shared the lead at the end of only two of the 100-plus major rounds he has played since his last Valhalla triumph. 

But but but. McIlroy has been quietly consistent at the post-Covid majors and he has taken a couple of trips to the painful threshold of victory. The 2022 Open at St Andrews’s and last year’s US Open were agonising near-misses.

The week’s omens are good too. He has won on each of his previous two starts – as he did before the 2014 victory here – and his game is in a healthy place. His driving is sensational, his chipping is dialled in, his putter glowed hot at Quail Hollow last week, and his diminished iron play has greatly improved under Butch Harmon’s gaze. 

Valhalla rewards driving distance, and the rain that is forecast will take the bounce from the fairways and accentuate McIlroy’s advantage off the tee. Softer greens might forgive any errant short irons, and the added length will mean players unsheathing longer irons more often than usual, another club with which McIlroy can separate himself from the field. 

But but but. If you think we are singing a similar song here – Rory wins the event leading into a major at a course on which he was previously won – it’s because we are. His Scottish Open win last year led into the Open’s return to Hoylake, where McIlroy putted himself out of contention.

And then there’s the slight complication of the competition. When McIlroy won here in 2014, his closest rivals in the bookies’ odds were Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, and Justin Rose. 

Elite players for sure, but nothing on Scheffler, Koepka, and Jon Rahm. Any of that trio can out-run McIlroy this week, and defending champion Koepka is talking with low menace about righting the wrongs of an “embarrassing” T45 finish at the Masters.

rochester-united-states-21st-may-2023-brooks-koepka-leans-on-the-trophy-after-winning-the-2023-pga-championship-at-oak-hill-country-club-in-rochester-new-york-on-sunday-may-21-2023-koepka-sho Koepka leans on the Wanamaker trophy he won at Oak Hill last year. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Rahm’s move to LIV and pitiful Masters defence has left him chafing in the shadows, but he hasn’t finished outside the top 10 on LIV this year, which suggests he has a floor of form from which he can vault back into the limelight. 

Scheffler, though, is the man to beat. He was dominating the game before the birth of his first child, so God knows what he might now go on to do with all this added perspective on life. Keith Elliot coined the Nappy Factor phrase back in the ’90s to describe the phenomenon of new fathers winning on Tour, so maybe Scheffler has just got another boost that he did not need this week. 

Shane Lowry, meanwhile, is a putter away from contending this week. While his ball-striking has been good this year, he has struggled on the greens, a fact borne starkly out by his stats at the Masters. Of the 60 players to make the cut, Lowry led the field in strokes gained approach but was dead last in putting. He changed his putter prior to his Zurich win alongside McIlroy, but he didn’t break par during an underwhelming outing at Quail Hollow.

charlotte-nc-may-10-shane-lowry-watches-his-shot-from-the-fourth-tee-during-the-second-round-of-wells-fargo-championship-at-quail-hollow-club-on-may-10-2024-in-charlotte-north-carolina-photo-b Shane Lowry. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Seamus Power isn’t in the field as he has dropped outside the world’s top 100, but 2008 champ Padraig Harrington will tee it up, coming off a T8 at last week’s Regions Tradition, a major on the champions tour.

While this event is traditionally the most volatile of the majors – the average world ranking of the winners of the PGA since 2009 is 34, with the Open the next highest at 26.4 – it is emerging as golf’s strongest field in this fissured era. To that end, the PGA of America have held their nose and invited the wealthy middle classes of LIV to compete. This includes the absurd figure of Talor Gooch, who said a hypothetical McIlroy win at Augusta would have an asterisk as Talor Gooch wasn’t in the field. Talor Gooch hasn’t won on LIV all year. 

Tiger Woods has also been given a special exemption to play, and this week he is repeating his new pre-tournament creeds.  Yes my body is compromised but I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t feel I could win. Those who truly believe Woods can win another major are currently an audience of one. 

The field is littered with more realistic contenders. Bryson Dechambeau played well for most of the Masters and his length will be an asset at Valhalla; Ludvig Aberg’s maiden major win is an inevitability and there’s no reason why it can’t come this week; Max Homa has the game and is showing the temperament to win one of these; all of Cam Smith, Jason Day, Wyndham Clark, and Collin Morikawa have majors on their CVs and are showing sparks of good form. 

But perhaps Valhalla’s gates will open again for Rory McIlroy. This is another week in which he has turned up with the keys.

His problem is he isn’t the only golfer holding them. 


  • Winner: Scottie Scheffler to win at 7/2
  • Make your money back: Max Homa e/w at 25/1 
  • Long shot: Jake Knapp e/w at 125/1  

Selected tee times (Rounds 1 and 2; All times Irish) 

  • Tiger Woods, Adam Scott, Keegan Bradley (1:04 p.m. Thursday, No. 10 / 6:29 p.m. Friday, No. 1)
  • Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose (1:15 p.m. Thursday, No. 10 / 6:40 p.m. Friday, No. 1)
  • Brooks Koepka, Max Homa, Jordan Spieth (1:37 p.m. Thursday, No. 10 / 7:02 p.m. Friday, No. 1)
  • Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm, Cameron Young (7:02 p.m. Thursday, No. 1 / 1:37 p.m. Friday, No. 10).
  • Wyndham Clark, Brian Harman, Scottie Scheffler (7:13 p.m. Thursday, No. 1 / 1:48 p.m. Friday, No. 10)
  • Shane Lowry, Jason Day, Nicolai Hojgaard (6:18p.m. Thursday, No. 1  / 12:53 p.m. Friday, No. 10) 
  • Padraig Harrington, Patrick Reed, Sam Burns (7:35 p.m. Thursday, No. 1 / 2:10 p.m. Friday, No. 10) 

 On TV: Sky Sports Golf, Live from 1pm on Thursday and Friday; From 2pm on Saturday and Sunday 

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