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PGA Championship Preview: How much do 2012 results matter?

Ian Poulter

Ian Poulter

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The record books in golf run deep, chock full of nooks and crannies that can produce a litany of bar trivia questions or provide fodder for stumping the other players in your foursome. But one of the more head-scratching queries of the last decade is gaining some traction ahead of the year’s second major: who finished second to Rory McIlroy at the 2012 PGA Championship?

That’s the last time the tournament was staged at Kiawah Island, which this week once again hosts the best in the game. Back then Luke Donald was world No. 1, with Tiger Woods in close pursuit. Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson, each newly-minted major champs, helped to round out the top 10.

That week is best remembered for blustery winds, some wild weather and an eight-shot romp by McIlroy as he won the second of four major titles. But the man who scooped second-place honors? That would be David Lynn, an unheralded Englishman who never won on the PGA Tour and was out of professional golf by 2015.


The two men who flanked McIlroy in the final group won’t be around this week, either. That Sunday he played with Carl Pettersson and Bo Van Pelt, each established Tour veterans back in 2012. Neither has recorded a top-10 finish since 2015. The final three groups also included Peter Hanson, a Ryder Cupper that year who has fallen to No. 1845 in the world, and Trevor Immelman, who now works more with a microphone than his clubs.

Looking back at that final leaderboard is akin to stepping into a time machine - and not just because McIlroy’s face was rounder and his hair was longer. In examining this week’s return to the South Carolina shores, can any of what happened the last time around prove useful?

“It’s nine years ago,” explained Ian Poulter. “The game has moved on a little bit in nine years.”

Poulter knows that of which he speaks. He’s among the swath of players in this week’s field who battled those windswept conditions back in 2012, and he actually played quite well - a final-round 69 gave him a share of third place. But he’s also now 45 years old, having spent the last decade or so relying on innate skill and surgical course management while trying to keep players half his age at bay. And he’s not sure that wealth of experience will help much this week on what is being billed as the longest course in major championship history.

“I quite like Pete Dye golf courses, personally. I’ve got a reasonable record on them. But to be honest, this new crop of players, they don’t care who designed it,” Poulter said. “320 (yards) down the middle is 320 down the middle, regardless of the stamp of whoever designed it. It’s irrelevant. It’s a golf course.”

2012 PGA Championship Leaderboard

-13 Rory McIlroy

-5 David Lynn

-4 Keegan Bradley, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose, Carl Pettersson

-3 Steve Stricker, Jamie Donaldson, Blake Adams, Peter Hanson

There’s always a secret sauce when it comes to handicapping a major championship, adding extra elements to account for the grandeur of the stage and the pressures that come with the opportunity. Just two years ago at this event, Brooks Koepka estimated that he only had to beat about 35 people in a 156-man field, with the rest playing or thinking their way out of contention. He backed up that assertion a few days later by beating all 35 of them.

But this week’s event provides an outsized variable with a venue that players either haven’t seen in years or haven’t seen at all. Kiawah isn’t exactly a cookie-cutter layout, either: brutal par-3s mixed with a lengthy finishing stretch, sandy visuals from every tee and paspalum grass on every green make for a challenge that’s a far cry from anything that players have faced in recent weeks.

It’ll be brand new to world No. 2 Justin Thomas this week, while Koepka admitted to relying on intel from his brother, Chase, who played it in a college event shortly after McIlroy’s victory. Even McIlroy shared that he has recently been watching replay videos of his own triumph in an effort to re-familiarize himself with the course.

“I chipped and putted so well that week. I mean, that’s the one thing I remember,” McIlroy said. “I got it up and down a lot, and my chipping and putting were really good.”

Almost everything about this week will be different from the last time the tournament was staged on the Ocean Course. The event has moved from August to May. The wild weather conditions, which ballooned second-round scores, soaked the grounds and caused third-round play to spill into Sunday, are unlikely to materialize.

So when it comes to factoring in past course history, how much stock can be placed in the leaderboard from nine years ago? As it turns out, it depends on who you ask.

Last time around, Keegan Bradley showed up to Kiawah as the defending champ. He had won the PGA the year prior in his very first major start, and he actually ended up T-3 alongside Poulter in a more than respectable defense of his title. But course conditions and setup aren’t what he recalls from that week.

“I remember I played my first two rounds with Tiger,” Bradley said. “I mean, I think you could go there and it could be a complete opposite wind and the course plays completely different. It could blow 30 mph, it could blow 0. I think the course prep is a little overblown. You’ve got to go out there and play. You can prepare all you want, but you’ve got to go out there and execute.”

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Odds to win 2021 PGA Championship (via PointsBet Sportsbook)

+1100: Rory McIlroy

+1300: Justin Thomas

+1400: Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth

+1700: Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson

+2000: Viktor Hovland, Xander Schauffele

+2500: Collin Morikawa

+2800: Hideki Matsuyama

+3000: Daniel Berger

Wind is sure to be a significant factor given the course’s coastal geography. But its unpredictable nature makes it difficult to reliably factor, especially given that tournament officials can adjust the course setup to respond to a given day’s forecast. Back in 2012, the scorecard yardage topped out at 7,676 yards but it played between 7,451 and 7,668 depending on the day. This week the yardage will max out at 7,876 - the most ever in a major, with the back-nine split alone over 4,000 yards.

“Setup on a year-to-year PGA Tour basis, the consistency of the setup that we see, of course it becomes semi-predictable. Horses for courses and all that stuff,” said Graeme McDowell, who finished T-11 in 2012. “But I think when you’ve got nine or 10 years between major championships, and different times of year as well, I don’t think you can really use that until we know exactly what the setup of the course is going to look like. Very, very hard to put any stock into what we saw last time.”

McDowell’s argument is well-reasoned, but it’s not shared by all who will tee it up this week. Phil Mickelson won his PGA title in 2005, and he finished T-36 at Kiawah in 2012. He arrives this week with one of the most seasoned perspectives of anyone in the field, and Lefty finds some value in the what and how from 2012.

“I think there is something to be said for playing a course well, being able to look at it and have a good feeling for it and have certain holes set up for shots that you like to hit,” Mickelson said. “But then you also have to execute. So you want to have guys that are playing well at that time, and that’s hard to predict nine years later.”

“I mean, the bottom line is the cliche that anybody can win any given week. But there is something to be said about having confidence at a venue, where your feet are,” added Zach Johnson, who finished 70th in 2012. “There is definitely something to be said for that.”

Paul Casey is hoping that the 2012 results don’t have much impact this time around. The Englishman teamed with Justin Rose in a World Cup event at Kiawah back in 2003, finishing second, but he missed the cut at the 2012 PGA during what he called one of the lowest points of his career. He’s since regained his footing in a big way, but he’s basically building a strategy from scratch this time around.

“If guys have got fond memories, that counts for something. It always does,” Casey said. “Some will know it because they’re down in that part of the world and go play it every so often with buddies. But for me, even though I’ve played six tournament rounds out there, I basically don’t know it. I couldn’t tell you much about it. I don’t even remember the routing very well, I genuinely don’t. So it’s a clean slate for me.”

Casey will have plenty of company mapping out game plans over the next three days, as players who are used to building a schedule around only the most familiar venues will be cobbling together a strategy on the fly for a unique layout. Some of those efforts will pay off this weekend; others may be blown off course before signing their opening-round scorecard.

Players will have some extra weapons at their disposal to shorten the learning curve - rangefinders will be allowed for the first time in major championship history, while Poulter extolled the detailed level of yardage books compared to what pros were using in 2012. Still, the challenge this week will require a mix of experience, creativity and the ability to adjust on the fly when things inevitably start to go a little sideways.

Some fond memories from 2012 won’t hurt, either. But with a fickle landscape dominating the conversation and half the leaderboard from last time watching this tournament from the comfort of their couch, it’s clear that course history won’t carry the same weight as it does at places like Augusta National or St. Andrews.

“The game of golf has been simplified,” Poulter said. “320 (yards), that kind of gets it done in most fairways. Factor a little bit of wind, figure out how far you hit a 7-iron. Roll in a couple putts and I think you’ll do just fine.”

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