By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - Rory McIlroy, fresh off a drought-busting win, is considered by many to be the man to beat in this week's PGA Championship at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course in South Carolina where he romped to an eight-shot victory in the same major nine years ago.
The Ocean Course, which boasts the most seaside holes in the Northern Hemisphere, may appear serene given its scenic vistas but it exposes golfers to often strong winds and this week will play as the longest major in history at 7,876 yards.
Northern Irishman McIlroy, one of the longest drivers on the PGA Tour, snapped an 18-month dry spell with his victory eight days ago at Quail Hollow to signal that his game is finally in strong form right in time for the year's second major.
"Rory, you knew he was going to figure it out," said ESPN golf analyst Andy North. "And (now) he's going to a golf course that he's played well before...
"The guy is one of the two or three most talented players we've got in the game. When he's at his best, you can argue that he's as good as anybody."
The 32-year-old McIlroy has not triumphed in one of golf's four blue-riband events since he picked up his fourth major at the 2014 PGA Championship.
Among the other favourites are world number one Dustin Johnson, who cited knee discomfort for his decision to sit out last week's warm-up event, Spaniard Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas and big-hitting Bryson DeChambeau.
The PGA Championship will be something of a home event for the long-hitting Johnson but the South Carolina native has not exactly been tearing it up of late and also missed the cut in his title defence at the Masters in April.
"Any time Dustin Johnson steps on the golf course, he's a threat," said ESPN golf analyst Curtis Strange.
"DJ is one of those guys, along with Rory, that can win tournaments by many shots, and so therefore he doesn't have to... be hitting on all cylinders to win."
For Jordan Spieth, this will mark his latest bid to complete the career Grand Slam and his game is trending in the right direction as he boasts seven top-10 finishes in his last nine starts, including a win six weeks ago in Texas.
Defending champion Collin Morikawa will quickly find the Ocean Course presents a totally different challenge to TPC Harding Park but he could still be a threat given the remarkable control of his ball flight, distance and spin.
As for U.S. Open champion DeChambeau, while most of the talk centres around his prodigious length off the tee, he has put in plenty of work on his short game and putting which could prove an unbeatable formula at Kiawah.
"Obviously he's an amazing talent, but when you're launching it up there and it stays in the air for eight, nine seconds, the wind is going to affect it at some point in time," said North. "Judging that is going to be difficult."
Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, in only his second start since he became the first Japanese man to win a major, arrives at Kiawah fresh off a share of 39th place last week.
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)