PGA Championship 2021: Latest Expectations for Golf's Top Favorites and Sleepers

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IMay 18, 2021

PGA Championship 2021: Latest Expectations for Golf's Top Favorites and Sleepers

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    It's major championship week once again.

    The PGA Championship will begin Thursday at the Ocean Course in Kiawah Island. Make no mistake, it will be an absolute bear.

    Kiawah is expected to play as the longest course in major championship history, per Golf News Net, topping out at 7,876 yards. The length and Pete Dye design should pose a stiff test for some of the best golfers on the planet as they look to take home the Wanamaker Trophy. 

    Golf fans saw some wonderful play at The Masters in April, when Hideki Matsuyama became the first Japanese male to win a major. What kind of drama is in store this week?

    Here is a closer look at a couple top favorites and sleepers to watch as play gets started on Thursday. Early-round coverage can be streamed on ESPN+ and later seen on the ESPN broadcast.

Rory McIlroy

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Rory McIlroy has quite a bit of familiarity with Kiawah.

    The Northern Irishman captured the 2012 PGA Championship at the Ocean Course, winning by eight shots. Can he recapture past successes as he hopes to end seven-year major championship drought? He's certainly building momentum at the right time.

    After missing the cut at The Masters, McIlroy won his very next start at the Wells Fargo Championship earlier this month. It was his first win on tour since the 2019 Players Championship, and probably could not have come at a better time.

    McIlroy certainly has the length to take on Kiawah. He ranks second in driving distance behind only Bryson DeChambeau. The key will be avoiding big numbers and three-putts. He did neither at Augusta.

    The two-time PGA champion is currently the odds-on favorite (+1150) to win. Time will tell whether McIlroy can get back in the major winners' circle.

Jordan Spieth

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    Ray Carlin/Associated Press

    Whereas McIlroy has endured a bit of an up-and-down 2021, Jordan Spieth's year has been mostly sunshine and rainbows.

    Spieth has four top fives this season, including a tie for third at The Masters. His win at the Valero Texas Open last month was his first in close to four years.

    The Texan has been competitive in just about every start this season, including a tie for ninth at last week's AT&T Byron Nelson. He has gone from being essentially a falling star to surging back among the game's elites. Now, he'll be looking for his first major since the 2017 British Open.

    This week also offers Spieth a shot at history. He can become just the sixth golfer in modern major championship history to complete the Career Grand Slam should he win at Kiawah. 

    Spieth hasn't been terrific off the tee, which could be tough at such a long and demanding venue. But his recoveries are nothing short of brilliant and, when he gets hot, he is arguably the best putter on tour.

    The Ocean Course could be the perfect site for some Spieth fireworks.

Will Zalatoris

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    Ray Carlin/Associated Press

    It almost seems absurd to consider Will Zalatoris a sleeper. Yet, there's pretty good value in his current odds.

    Zalatoris is currently a +5500 favorite to win the PGA Championship. This is the same guy who finished solo second at The Masters and was in a tie for sixth at the U.S. Open last summer. Not to mention, he spent the early part of the 2020 season on the Korn Ferry Tour.

    One the one hand, Zalatoris has struggled since his runner-up Masters finish. He placed in a tie for 42nd at the RBC Heritage and was cut at the Wells Fargo before finishing in a tie for 17th at the AT&T Byron Nelson. However, Kiawah could be an ideal setup for him.

    Zalatoris ranks in a tie for 23rd in driving distance. Even more importantly, he ranks 13th in greens in regulation (GIR) percentage and is third in strokes gained from approach. The 24-year-old is a brilliant ball-striker and can hunt pins

    The flat stick could make-or-break this week for the former Wake Forest product. Zalatoris ranks just 123rd in strokes gained putting and hasn't exactly filled it up from inside 15 feet. He'll likely hope to change that and make a bunch of birdies in the first couple rounds.

Joaquin Niemann

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Whereas Zalatoris gained more acclaim with his Masters performance, Joaquin Niemann is mostly still flying under the radar. He shouldn't be.

    The 22-year-old has been one of the most well-rounded players on tour this season. He ranks eighth in driving distance and 29th in strokes gained putting, also ranking ninth in total strokes gained.

    Niemann has also played decently in big tournaments. He was pretty squarely in contention at last year's U.S. Open before a 77 on Sunday dropped him into a tie for 23rd. 

    It should also be said the Chilean is playing some of his best golf as of late. He finished in a tie for eighth at the Wells Fargo and was inside the top 20 at the AT&T Byron Nelson.

    Niemann's length and overall polish bode well at a place like Kiawah. He can make birdies (14th in birdie average) and post a low number at the drop of a hat.

    Do not be surprised if Niemann (+7000) is near the top of the leaderboard after the first couple rounds.


    All stats obtained via All odds obtained via DraftKings.   


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