When Ireland’s Shane Lowry, the ultimate everyman, finished off his six-stroke annihilation of the unsuspecting Open Championship field at Royal Portrush last July, nobody could have imagined that it would be the final round of major championship golf for more than 12 months, something that had not happened since a conflict known as World War II pre-empted the entire 1943 slate.
The 2020 global COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world forever, and while the impact on professional sports is unimportant given the lives lost, San Francisco’s debut on the PGA Tour major championship stage will be providing a distraction for a public utterly starving for one.
Originally set to take place in May, the 102nd PGA Championship, the first of seven majors set to tee off over a frantically-rescheduled next 11 months, has no shortage of anticipation, and no shortage of compelling storylines.
The man who comes out in front at TPC Harding Park, named for former president Warren G. Harding, will be doing so in front of a potentially unprecedented television audience (spectators are not permitted at the event) at a tournament that is arguably the most unpredictable in recent memory.
Here are some of the more intriguing storylines to follow during this rare west-coast major:
1. Koepka Defends (Twice!)
Not especially hyped coming out of a quality Florida State University golf program, 30-year-old Brooks Koepka has somehow become synonymous with major championship golf. One more than his number of victories in non-majors, Koepka has claimed victory at four of the last ten majors contested, in addition to two runner-ups, a T4, and a T6.
Especially relevant to this week, among those four major wins is the last two PGA Championships. At last year’s event at Bethpage Black in New York, he exploded out of the gates to a seven-stroke 36 and 54-hole lead, both tournament records, before coasting to a two-stroke win over frequent major bridesmaid Dustin Johnson.
At Bellerive the year prior, he set the PGA Championship scoring record, clipping the legendary Tiger Woods by two strokes. When the pressure is greatest, Koepka is most comfortable, a rare trait not just in golf, but in life.
Despite his reputation as the biggest of big-game hunters, there is considerable reason to be skeptical that Koepka can become the first player to win the same major three consecutive years since Peter Thomson conquered the 1954, 1955, and 1956 Open Championships.
Maybe not TOO shocking given that 2020 has been majorless so far, but Koepka has had a down year since coming back from an injury in February. On the season, he has just two top-10s in 11 starts, and heading into last week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, he ranked 155th in the FedEx Cup Standings, with only three events remaining before the top 125 will move onto the playoffs.
Fortunately for Brooks, he is heating up at the right time. At that WGC event in Memphis, he opened up with an 8-under 62 to take the initial lead. After that total dropped to 4-under midway through Saturday, he got it going again, leading the tournament as late into Sunday before a wet tee shot on the 72nd hole clinched the title for Justin Thomas.
It was not the ending he was seeking, but his T2 again put the field on notice just as the majors begin. Not much can be predicted with confidence this week, but Koepka finding his way into contention almost feels guaranteed.
2. Tiger’s 2020 Major Debut
Doomed by many to spend the rest of his days being stuck on “only” 14 major championships, four short of Jack Nicklaus’ highly-coveted record, a 43-year-old Tiger Woods emphatically snapped an exhausting 11-year majorless drought when he turned back the clock at Augusta last year, winning his fifth Masters, and catching the awe of the entire sports universe.
Tiger has had to re-learn how to win, adjusting decades of muscle memory to work with a troublesome back that has been subjected to one surgery after another, and he has done so brilliantly. Now the question becomes, can he win three more majors and tie Jack? That is a tall task given the surplus of elite young talents on Tour, and how much his back limits his schedule.
This week will mark just the third competitive start for the world No. 15 since the 2020 calendar year began. He posted a T40 at last month’s Memorial Tournament in his only action since February combining two rounds of 1-under 71 with two rounds of 4-over 76.
He did, however, win the inaugural ZOZO Championship in October, which tied him with Sam Snead for the most wins in Tour history (82) and was undoubtedly the MVP for the victorious American squad at December’s Presidents Cup. He ostensibly has the game to win more majors, but can he hold up physically? That is anyone’s guess at this point.
If Tiger were to win at Harding Park, it would be his fifth career PGA Championship, tying him with Walter Hagen for the most all-time. He missed the cut a year ago at Bethpage Black a year after finishing solo-second to Brooks Koepka at Bellerive, his 7th career major runner-up.
3. JT on Fire
The top spot in the Official World Golf Rankings has been uncharacteristically volatile this year. Koepka began 2020 in first, later giving way to Rory McIlroy, who lost the spot to first-timer Jon Rahm, who only held the position for one start before he was overtaken last week by Justin Thomas.
The easy leader for Tour Player of the Year, Thomas overcame an absurdly-stacked leaderboard at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Classic to win his third title in 14 starts this season. At 27 years and 3 months of age, only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have reached 13 wins quicker in the past 60 years. That is some elite company.
Where JT is still lagging behind those two legends, however, is with his major count. He nabbed his sole major at this event in 2017, making up a two-stroke 54-hole deficit to win by two over Francesco Molinari, Patrick Reed, and Louis Oosthuizen and the famed Quail Hollow Club. With four rounds in the 60s, Thomas finished T6 in his championship defense at Bellerive, before regrettably having to miss last year’s edition with a wrist injury.
Armed with a colossal lead in the FedExCup standings, Thomas ranks No. 1 on Tour in strokes gained: total, strokes gained: tee-to-green, strokes gained: approach-the-green, and if he stays atop the money list, he will have won it for the third time in four seasons. He ranks second in scoring average and third in birdie average. He has been inconsistent with his putter, but in his current form, he stands a great shot at bookmarking the back-to-back Koepka victories.
4. A Spieth Slam?
Also 27 years old, former University of Texas phenom Jordan Spieth is still trying to re-discover the form that won him 11 events, including three majors: the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open, and the 2017 Open Championship, and propelled him to No. 1 in the world rankings.
Now just a PGA short of becoming the sixth player to win the career Grand Slam, Spieth came closest when he finished second to Jason Day at the 2015 edition. Earlier in his career, he looked like he was bred to win majors.
Now, not only is Spieth majorless since out-dueling Matt Kuchar at the 2017 Open Championship, he is winless entirely. Seeming to lose one part of his game when he gets another back, he has just 12 top-10s in 60 starts over the last three years, and over those 60 starts, has made just $16,000 more than HALF of his 2015 earnings alone.
Even more troubling, four of the five top 10s in 2018 occurred before his career hit a proverbial speed bump. In his first 10 starts of 2018, he appeared to be, well, Jordan Spieth, posting four top 10s and four additional top 20s, capped off with a solo third-place finish at the Masters, highlighted by a Sunday charge for the ages en route to a tournament-low 8-under 64 to finish just two off the pace of Patrick Reed.
He hasn’t looked the same – or come close, since.
This will be his fourth shot at the career grand slam. A year ago at Bethpage Black, he played well enough to get into the final Saturday grouping with Koepka, but a round-three 72 knocked him out of contention. He finished T3, six strokes out of first.
In 14 starts in the current season, a T8 at October’s CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges is his best result. Spieth has fallen to 62nd in the world rankings. He ranks outside the top 200(!) on Tour in driving accuracy and greens in regulation.
Still, despite the recent struggles, Spieth is still young and has shown stunning brilliance on the major stage. Nobody who knows anything about golf will be counting him out at Harding Park this week. This could be the week a legend gets back on track.
5. Looking for First Major Title
Aside from Brooks Koepka going crazy, the past four seasons on Tour have been about the first-time major winners, with 12 of the past 16 majors being won by first-timers, the exceptions being Jordan Spieth once, and Koepka three times. As more prodigious talents have entered and dominated the amateur ranks in recent years, an extraordinarily impressive collection of talents looking for that major breakthrough has developed. Here are the ones who warrant the most attention:
The holder of the record for most weeks atop the amateur world rankings (60), the 25-year-old wunderkind from Spain ascended to the top spot in the professional world ranks with a dominant win at The Memorial Tournament three weeks ago, an event that boasted the best strength of field at a non-major in many years. He held that spot for just two weeks (and only one start) before being overtaken by Thomas in Memphis last Sunday.
A T52 at TPC Southwind was surprising given how absurd his results have been in the past year-plus of doing double-duty both in the U.S. and in Europe. In his 18 starts stretching from the 2019 U.S. Open to the COVID layoff, Rahm had three wins worldwide, in addition to four runner-ups, two T3s, four other top 10s, and just one finish worse than T17. He has a finish of at least fourth in three of the four majors, with his best PGA Championship result being a T4 in 2018.
The “mad scientist” has set the golf world abuzz lately, bulking up and giving his already-powerful game an even bigger boost.
At fourth in the FedExCup Standings and 7th in the world rankings, the confident 26-year-old DeChambeau won his sixth career PGA Tour event at last month’s Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, the final event of a stretch of seven straight top-10s.
He has not been as stellar his past two starts, and he has yet to finish better than T15 in a major, but the Tour has definitely taken notice of his presence.
The 30-year-old from Utah seems to contend everywhere, but has struggled to close, amassing 30 top-10s over the past four years without a victory, 14 more than the next closest player (Tommy Fleetwood).
It has been no different in majors, where he has five top 10s in his last eight starts, and played in the final Sunday pairing with Tiger Woods at last year’s Masters. He is still looking for his second career victory, with the first coming at the 2016 opposite-field Puerto Rico Open. If he keeps knocking on that door, eventually he will be able to answer.
One of the most well-liked players on the Tour, the ostentatious 31-year-old has a reputation that supercedes his accomplishments.
Five victories seems low for his level of talent and flashes of skill, and he has finished in the top 3 in all four majors (top 2 in three of them) without winning any.
His best finish in the PGA was a T3 at Valhalla in 2014. He did contend at last week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational before collapsing on Sunday and finishing T15.
The 26-year-old California native has four victories over his four Tour seasons, in addition to six runner-ups and three third-places. He has been especially lethal in majors, finishing T6 of better in five of 11 starts.
The PGA Championship is the only one he has not contended at, however, with a T16 a year ago being his best result. He has five top 20s in his last six starts, which includes a T13 at The Memorial, where he was 8-over at one point on Thursday, and a T6 at last week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Classic.