Ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, a now-unrecognizable world could use a respite from its new reality. To the rescue comes the professional golf world, as TPC Harding Park in San Francisco hosts the 102nd PGA Championship this week – the first major to be played in more than 12 months, something that has not been said since WWII.
Competing only with a surprisingly-insipid NBA bubble and the categorical mess that has become the MLB restart, this year’s edition of the PGA could be its most viewed ever.
In such an unprecedented set of circumstances, ranking the field becomes especially difficult, but here is who we like most to contend for the 102nd Wanamaker trophy:
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1. Brooks Koepka
Short explanation: I mean, it’s a major. It HAS to be Brooks, right?
Longer explanation: We know it isn’t THAT simple, but Koepka is the two-time defending champion. Forgive us if you have heard this a million times already, but his mastery of this elite format cannot be overstated. He is not just a big game hunter, he is THE big game hunter.
In his last ten major starts, he has four victories, two runner-ups, a T4, and a T13. In his last 17 major starts, he has only finished outside the top twenty twice, and one of those was a T21 in his second ever Masters start, a major that is notoriously experience-heavy. He just does not feel pressure to the point where it feels like a medical condition.
At Bethpage Black last year, Koepka went wire-to-wire and was absolutely routing the field before an uncharacteristic four-hole stretch of back-nine bogeys briefly brought Dustin Johnson back into the mix. This is his game.
Sycophantic gushing aside (we can’t imagine that he reads his press anyway) nothing is easy in this pandemic-ravaged season, and 2020 Brooks has not been his best edition. He has taken a while to shake off the rust coming back from injury, and going into last week, he was somehow on the outside looking in for the FedExCup playoffs in two weeks.
That is why the field should be downright FRIGHTENED at what developed at TPC Southwind last weekend, where Brooks got into, and stayed, in contention at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, even holding a late solo lead. Nailing a 40-foot birdie putt on 17 was vintage big moment Brooks.
Yes, his 18th hole was a disaster, but be honest, you thought he hit that drive absolutely perfect before it rolled into the water. He cost himself a pretty penny ($450,000 actually) with that untimely water-ball, but his performance overall was beyond encouraging.
Don’t overthink it: Brooks. Major.
World Rank: 6
2019 Majors: 2 (M), 1 (P), 2 (U), 4 (B)
2. Xander Schauffele
If Brooks Koepka is the Patrick Mahomes of the PGA Tour, Xander Schauffele is the DeShaun Watson: an intelligent, massively-skilled player on the cusp of true stardom in his young career.
A California native who won the 2017 Tour Championship as a rookie, about as enormous of a win as there is among non-majors, Schauffele has looked extraordinarily comfortable in the spotlight, finishing sixth or better in five of his only 11 major starts, including two runner-ups, plus an additional runner-up at THE PLAYERS.
We suspect that the 26-year-old with four victories, six runner-ups, and 22 top-10s on Tour in less than four seasons will find his way into the mix again. He has been excellent since the COVID-19 layoff with five top-20s in six starts, finishing T3 at the Travelers, T6 at last week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude, and somehow shooting an opening 78 at The Memorial and still finishing T13.
Boasting one of the best all-around games on Tour, Schauffele finished inside the top 50 in all seven strokes gained categories in 2019, and has taken his tee-to-green proficiency to another level in 2020.
World Rank: 11
2019 Majors: 2, 16, 3, 41
3. Justin Thomas
The 2017 PGA Champ at Quail Hollow missed last year’s event with a wrist injury, but there is no reason to believe that means anything this week. Thomas ranks No. 1 on Tour this season in victories (3), top 10 finishes (9), FedExCup points, money, strokes gained: approach-the-green, strokes gained: tee-to-green, and tee-to-green: total.
Perhaps most relevant to his chances at TPC Harding Park, he also ranks No. 1 in victories at last week’s tournament, which appropriately elevated him in the world rankings to his current position of… No. 1.
Hopefully, that triumph in Memphis, his 13th career win, obliterated the residual scar tissue from the triumph he gave away last month at the Workday Charity Classic.
Typically, when JT gets out front, JT stays out front. Having fill-in caddie extraordinaire Jim “Bones” MacKay, who was on the bag for all five of Phil Mickelson’s major championships, does not hurt either.
World Rank: 1
2019 Majors: 12, DNP, MC, 11
4. Dustin Johnson
Now 36 years of age, Dustin Johnson’s win just over a month ago at the Travelers Championship locked in a 13th consecutive season with a victory. Making that streak even more impressive is that fact that he has been a full-time player on Tour for… 13 seasons.
However, of the 21 Tour victories he has amassed over that time (only Tiger and Phil have more among regularly-active players), only one occurred in a major: the 2016 U.S. Open. Closing the deal has been an issue, as he finished between 2nd and 10th on the major leaderboard an additional 16 times.
DJ was runner-up at the PGA last year, and in his ten prior attempts also has a T5, T7, T8, and a T10. He is way too talented to have not more career majors than Shaun Micheel, Rich Beam, or Y.E. Yang – three players he does not run into at Tour Support Group meetings for players without Wanamakers.
That clean-shaven guy who stole Dustin Johnson’s caddie last week in Memphis looked solid, shooting four rounds in the 60s and finishing T12 against a stacked field. To be fair, though, DJ has not looked himself for most of the past 14 months, not finishing better than 20th in any of his 2019 season starts after his runner-up at Bethpage, and posting just one top-5 in his last 18 starts, seven fewer than he had in his 18 starts prior.
There was also the unexplainable 80-80 three weeks ago at The Memorial. We are encouraged by what we have seen lately, and think he will look more like the DJ who finished runner-up in the first two majors of 2019 than the one who went T35-T51 in the other two.
World Rank: 5
2019 Majors: 2, 2, 35, 51
5. Jon Rahm
An absolute rock star off the tees, the 25-year-old Rahm is one of the most precocious golfers in recent memory. After a prodigious amateur career where he won 11 times at Arizona State and set the record for most weeks atop the world rankings (60), Rahm has notched a victory in all four of his Tour seasons, and added an additional six victories on the European Tour.
Doing double duty in the U.S. and Europe, he has finished in the top 10 in a ridiculous 57.6% of his total starts over the past four seasons (49 of 85).
In the 18-start stretch lasting from the 2019 U.S. Open to the COVID layoff, Rahm had three victories worldwide, four runner-ups, two T3s, four other top 10s, and only one result worse than T17. He was a little slow to shake off the rust when Tour play resumed, but snapped back into eliteness with a dominant three-stroke victory at The Memorial last month, jumping to No. 1 in the professional world rankings in the process. He only got to enjoy that position for one start, as Justin Thomas overtook him after his victory at last week’s WGC event.
While it feels like Rahm has not really knocked on the door of a major championship, he already has a top-4 finish in three of the four majors, including a T4 at the PGA Championship two years at Bellerive.
Among those yet to win a major, Rahm is easily the safest bet to win one someday. Will it be this week? He has been criticized in the past for his on-course temperament, but has matured significantly. People are running out of reasons to bet against him.
World Rank: 2
2019 Majors: 9, MC, 3, 11
6. Rory McIlroy
Nobody got their 2020 season off to a better start than Rory. The controversial, reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year, finished off last season with a Tour Championship and FedExCup title, and was able to carry that momentum through the wrap-around, finishing in the top 5 in all six events he played from October to March, in addition to a few strong results in Europe.
Since Tour play resumed, however, Rory has fallen from his perch atop the world rankings, and a T11 at the Travelers was his only finish inside the top 30 in five starts. A week ago, he had two over-par rounds in Memphis, leading to a T47 in a 78-man field. Only 11 birdies for the week is outright shocking given that, last decade, he led the Tour in birdie average twice and finished second twice.
The now 31-year-old has a surprising amount of pressure to perform this week. Not only is he trying to get out of a surprising funk, but the most recent of his four career major wins was more than SIX years ago (2014 PGA). That seems unthinkable given his early career promise and reputation.
Can he get it back on track this week? He has ten top 10s in majors since that last major victory at Valhalla. He CAN win anywhere, and his best is the best there is. This could be the one that makes him unstoppable again.
World Rank: 3
2019 Majors: 21, 8, 9, MC
7. Tiger Woods
The ultimate frontrunner has become the ultimate wild card. It would not be shocking to us if he missed the cut, as he did at last year’s PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, and at last year’s Open Championship.
It would be equally not-as-shocking if Tiger wins the event by multiple strokes, as he did at last year’s Masters. It largely comes down to how back is holding up, something that Tiger himself probably has no idea about at this point.
We do know that if his famously-troublesome back does again give in to the decades of viciously-aggressive swings he subjected it to, it will not be because he played too many competitive rounds in the tournament lead-in. Tiger has teed up for money without Peyton Manning just three times in the new decade, and only once since his 68th-place finish at the mid-February Genesis Open, that being a T40 at The Memorial.
However, as discouraging as that limited sample-size of results was, he also won the ZOZO Championship in October, and was undoubtedly the American MVP at the President’s Cup in December. Oh, and there’s also that thing about the 15 majors he has won, and the four Wanamakers gracing his mantle. Seriously, we have no clue this week. Nobody does.
Given the relative unfamiliarity this field has with TPC Harding Park, we do give an extra bump to Tiger’s chances, as it makes the ability of a player to think their way around a course a little more significant, something his current version does better than anyone on the planet.
World Rank: 15
2019 Majors: 1, MC, 21, MC
8. Bryson DeChambeau
The mad scientist was the talk of the Tour in June and early July, as DeChambeau was just flat-out overpowering one host venue after another. With muscles on top of muscles, the controversial 26-year-old was able to harness his Herculean strength into an eight-start stretch where he failed to finish worse than T8 in a single event.
The acme was his awe-inspiring triumph at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, finishing off his sixth Tour win with three consecutive birdies.
However, the celebrated SMU product has a proclivity towards streakiness, and some of the luster has dulled since that win in the Motor City, which he followed up with a missed cut at The Memorial and a T30 at last week’s WGC event.
Combined with the downward trend, DeChambeau’s prospects this week also take a hit due to his pedestrian major record, as he is still seeking his first top ten. Nothing better than a T25 in his 11 major starts over the last three seasons is surprising.
He will win a major soon; that feels inevitable. We think Bryson finds the first page of the leaderboard and gets in his first experience contending on that grandest of stages. Once he does? Watch out.
World Rank: 7
2019 Majors: 29, MC, 35, MC
9. Webb Simpson
Concern that the 2012 U.S. Open champ from WAY behind peaked too early – it took 22 more major starts before he posted another top 10 – has all but disappeared during a career 2020 season where he has two victories among six top 10s in just 10 starts.
The 34-year-old is not thought to be one to light up a scorecard with circles, but he currently leads the PGA Tour in birdie average, after finishing 69th and 111th in that same statistic the past two years, respectively.
Webb’s major results have been trending upwards for several years as well, largely a result of precipitously increased competency with his putter. The vast improvement he has made with the flatstick since the ban on anchored putters just does not happen, and reflects an insatiable work ethic. He has six top 20s in his last eight major starts, and looks to finally push past the periphery of contending once again. TPC Harding Park is a venue that suits his strengths well.
World Rank: 4
2019 Majors: 5, 29, 16, 30
10. Shane Lowry
When the affable Irishman tees up this week, he will have been the most recent golfer to win a major for one year and 16 days, something that has not been done since Tiger held that position for exactly one year in a stretch between 2000 and 2001.
To be fair, there will not have BEEN a major played for one year and 16 days, but that last major? Wow, that was something! The 33-year-old disemboweled an unsuspecting field at the Open Championship at Royal Portrush, running away with the Claret Jug by an absurd six-stroke margin.
Do not underestimate what that kind of route could have on a player’s confidence; Lowry knows he can win, and he knows he can win big. The pressure being off could be scary for the field, and this major occurs the week after he snapped out of a post-layoff funk, finishing T6 at last week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Classic. His iron game was especially lethal in Memphis, as on Sunday he hit 15 greens despite only hitting four fairways. He also has shown comfort in this event, finishing T8 last year at Bethpage Black, less than a year after a T12 at Bellerive.
World Rank: 26
2019 Majors: MC, 8, 28, 1
11. Daniel Berger
Talk about everything coming back together! After injury engendered back-to-back underwhelming seasons for the former Tour Rookie of the Year, Brooks Koepka’s college teammate has made the game look easy in 2020.
In seven starts since the beginning of February, Berger has six top 10s, four more than he had in 2018 and 2019 combined, and five top-5s, highlighted by a win at the Charles Schwab Challenge and a T2 at last week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Classic.
The 27-year-old has yet to contend at a major, which is basically the only thing keeping him out of the top five on this list. Nobody should be surprised if this is the last time that can be said.
World Rank: 20
2019 Majors: MC, 8, 28, 1
12. Tyrrell Hatton
Forget about that virtual no-show in Memphis last week, the man who sits one spot ahead of Tiger Woods in the world rankings (No. 14) has been superb in 2020, following a March win at the stacked-field Arnold Palmer Invitational with two other top-4 post-layoff performances.
Hatton might wear his emotions on his sleeve, which turns some people off, but he is legitimately great, and has gotten his feet wet on the major stage, posting three top 10s in majors over the past two seasons.
At second on Tour in birdie average and third in strokes gained: total, the 28-year-old can contend, and win, anywhere.
World Rank: 14
2019 Majors: 56, 48, 21, 6
13. Patrick Cantlay
The former amateur superstar looks to be on the verge of joining the ranks of major winners, contending late at last year’s Masters and finishing T3 at the U.S. Open.
Ranked in the top 10 for more than a year now, Cantlay will be arriving at TPC Harding Park in good form after a 65-67 weekend in Memphis. The Californian’s tee-to-green game makes him a threat anywhere, and the moment has never looked too big for him.
World Rank: 10
2019 Majors: 9, 3, 21, 41
14. Phil Mickelson
Do not forget about the 2005 PGA Champ! The now 50(!)-year-old looks rejuvenated since acquiring Champions Tour eligibility, contending early at the Travelers Championship with a 64-63 start, and placing T2 at last week’s WGC event.
A proud California native is a sneaky-good bet to knock Julius Boros off his perch atop the list of oldest major winners. Historically, he has thrived in his home state.
World Rank: 49
2019 Majors: 18, 71, 52, MC
15a. Tom Lewis
Who? Memphis sure became acquainted with the somewhat-anonymous Englishman last weekend. Sitting at 3-over par after two rounds at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, the 29-year-old pulled a Saturday 61 (a new course record since the event was assimilated into the WGC slate) out of seemingly nowhere, and kept his foot on the gas Sunday, carding birdies on four consecutive front-nine holes, surging into a late co-lead and finishing in a tie for second.
Lewis lacks experience on the major stage, but did finish T11 at the most recent major played, and he has notched a number of tremendous finishes in big-time European Tour events.
World Rank: 46
2019 Majors: DNP, MC, DNP, 11
15b. Jason Day
Again contending on the PGA Tour is the familiar face of former No. 1 Jason Day, who is back up to 42nd in the world rankings after his third consecutive top-10 finish at last week’s WGC event.
The 2015 PGA Champion at Whistling Straits and 2016 runner-up has been a recent fixture in this major, finishing T23 or better in eight of his ten attempts.
World Rank: 42
2019 Majors: 5, 23, 21, MC
15c. Abraham Ancer
Surprised to see a man with zero PGA Tour wins in the top 15? Don’t be. The pride of Mexico has been his best in big events, playing a starring role for the International team’s near-upset of the U.S. at December’s Presidents Cup, in addition to finishes of T17, T4, T12, and T15 in his last four WGC starts, respectively, and twice contending at FedExCup Playoff events. The two runner-ups he has on the 2020 could very well be tied for his second-best.
World Rank: 23
2019 Majors: DNP, 16, 49, MC
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