South Africa

Scheffler, McIlroy prepare for showdown at PGA Championship

Brooks Koepka, who won his fifth major title last year, will turn out as the defending champion.

World number one Scottie Scheffler and second-ranked Rory McIlroy lead a power-packed field into Thursday’s start of the 106th PGA Championship at formidable Valhalla.

Players made their last preparations Wednesday for the showdown, practice rounds offering a final glimpse at the 7,609-yard layout.

Michael Block, an American club professional who shared 15th in 2023, will hit Thursday’s opening shot off the first tee at 7.15am (1.15pm SA time).

Scheffler has won four of his past five starts, taking titles at Bay Hill and the Players in March, then dropping a Houston Open playoff before capturing his second Masters green jacket and the Heritage in April.

“I feel like I’m in a good head space,” Scheffler said. “I’ve just been playing some really good golf. The last couple months it seems like it has felt fairly easy at times.”

Scheffler will compete as a father for the first time after son Bennett was born last week. The 27-year-old American arrived in Kentucky after a three-week layoff.

“I don’t really feel like any rust has accumulated,” Scheffler said.

Emotional roller-coaster

McIlroy has not won a major since he took the PGA at Valhalla in 2014, but the 35-year-old from Northern Ireland returns to the course after a emotional roller-coaster few days.

After winning a pairs event in April with Ireland’s Shane Lowry, McIlroy made a stunning last-round fightback Sunday to win his fourth career PGA Wells Fargo Championship.

“I think it’s all about confidence and momentum and I have a lot of confidence and quite a bit of momentum coming into this week,” McIlroy said. “It’s just about trying to keep that going.”

McIlroy, however, who flew home Monday to Florida and filed for divorce from wife Erica, made a brief appearance at the course Tuesday just after the news became public.

The four-time major winner spoke Wednesday, touching on his personal life only when asked about his energy level and personal readiness.

“I’m ready to play this week,” he said.

Koepka’s title defence

Defending champion Brooks Koepka won his fifth major title and third PGA Championship last year at Oak Hill, the first major win by an active LIV Golf player. There are 16 LIV players in this week’s field of 156.

With LIV and PGA Tour players split as merger talks drag on, it’s a rare chance to see Koepka, who won a LIV title two weeks ago at Singapore, face Scheffler, McIlroy and other PGA Tour stars.

“I’m just looking forward to a major championship. That kind of gets my excitement going, something I look forward to all year,” Koepka said.

“I always enjoy competing against these guys and anytime you get the best, it’s always good. You just want them to play their best too. You want to go out and win it.”

Koepka will start Thursday morning alongside ninth-ranked compatriot Max Homa and Jordan Spieth, who is trying to complete a career Grand Slam with a victory at Valhalla.

‘Just wears you out’

Tiger Woods, a 15-time major winner who took the 2000 PGA at Valhalla, will compete but has struggled to walk 72 holes since suffering severe leg injuries in a 2021 car crash.

Woods admires many aspects of Scheffler’s game.

“His ball striking, the amount of greens he hits, he just wears you out,” Woods said of Scheffler. “And he has an amazing pair of hands around the greens. If he putts awful, then he finishes in top 10. If he putts decent, he wins. He putts great, he runs away. He’s just that good a ball-striker and all-around player.”

He’s also a fan of McIlroy.

“Rory, just the way he’s able to take over a golf course and just overpower it, I kind of remember that back when I was younger,” Woods said. “But it has been awhile.”

Storms are predicted for Friday with a chance of storms on Saturday before skies clear.

That forecast only figures to make Valhalla tougher, warns world number three Xander Schauffele.

“Definitely I think geared up for a really exciting finish,” he said. “It’s beast of a property. The rough is getting long. The greens are receptive but the course is still very long.”