Mid-May is an absolutely magnificent time to spend on the coast of the Carolinas, and it appears that this week will be no exception. That is excellent news for the fortunate 156 professional golfers who will be teeing up on the Ocean Course at South Carolina’s Kiawah Island, the host venue for the 103rd PGA Championship.
The second major of the 2021 PGA Tour season, the most elite field in golf will be on hand, including 49 of the top 50 of the Official World Golf Ranking scheduled to be in attendance – with only No. 27 Matthew Wolff opting out.
There is no shortage of intrigue this year, the first major since 2019 that will feature more than a sparse spattering of fans, but here are a few to watch especially close:
1. Collin Morikawa Defends 2020 PGA
Collin Morikawa has already won four PGA Tour events, despite making just 44 professional starts. However, he has yet to play an event as the defending champion, something he will have the opportunity to do this week at the PGA Championship.
Two of the other three events he has won, the Workday Charity Open and the WGC-Workday Championship At The Concession, have not held another edition since he won, and the other – the Barracuda Championship, is an opposite-field event that he did not opt to enter.
The 24-year-old’s triumph at last August’s PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco was easily the most impressive of his victories. He went into the final round in a share of fourth place, two back of 54-hole leader Dustin Johnson. A leaderboard for the ages, Morikawa outlasted the likes of Johnson, Paul Casey, Jason Day, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Rose, Scottie Scheffler, Cameron Champ, and Matthew Wolff to win in his PGA Championship debut, and just his second major championship start.
The “championship moment” for Morikawa came while standing on the tee box of the driveable par-4 16th, as he somehow landed his tee shot just seven feet from the hole. He sunk his putt for eagle to jump two up with two to go. His 65-64 weekend was the lowest, not just in PGA Championship history, but the lowest in the history of ANY major.
The California native and Cal-Berkeley product has not disappointed in his follow-up 2021 season. In 14 season starts, he has four top 10s, including the victory at the WGC event in Tampa, and three T7s.
He is currently No. 6 in the world rankings and 25th in the FedExCup Standings.
That all being said, Morikawa is not arriving at Kiawah Island in the best of his best form. In his first start after the WGC win, he finished T41 at THE PLAYERS, followed by a T56 in the 64-man WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, where he went 0-2-1 in group play, losing to Billy Horschel and Max Homa. He then finished T18 at The Masters, followed by a T7 at the RBC Heritage, where he made the final Sunday pairing, but struggled badly.
Most recently, he missed the cut by nine(!) strokes at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, where he was paired with fellow young star Matthew Wolff.
That Sunday at the RBC Heritage was especially troubling, because it magnified his 2021 difficulties closing events. His final round average ranks 92nd on Tour, nearly three shots more than his Tour-leading second round average. His shotmaking is still pristine, evidenced by his Tour leading number in strokes gained: approach-the-green, and by the fact that he is second in strokes gained: tee-to-green.
Morikawa ranks an abysmal 186th in strokes gained: putting though, and will need to be at least passable in that regard if he wants to add his second major in the same event he captured his first.
2. Jordan Spieth Hits a Grand Slam?
Coming off a season that gave us the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to a variety of social issues and other difficulties, 2021 has been an important year for the PGA Tour.
On the positive side, 2021 has also signaled the valiant return to the world’s elite for three-time major champion Jordan Spieth.
Submerged in a lengthy slump, Spieth had been stuck on 11 career victories since his triumph over Matt Kuchar at the 2017 Open Championship. He seemed more lost with each year that passed, and in 2020 he sunk to his lowest point, with just four finishes inside the top 25 in 17 starts, including a 10-tournament stretch where he missed five cuts and failed to record a result of better than T38.
His problems were largely mental, by Spieth’s own account, but something finally seemed to click in early February. Coming off a missed cut at the Farmers Insurance Open, a third-round 61 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open gave him the 54-hole lead before finishing T4. He was T3 the following week, and while he was still struggling on Sundays, he was finally getting into contention again. He finally closed the deal again at last month’s Valero Texas Open, winning by two strokes over Charley Hoffman.
Now, heading into the PGA Championship, Spieth has finished in the top 15 in eight of his past nine starts, including the win and a T3 at The Masters. A former No. 1 in the world rankings, Spieth fell to 92nd early in 2021, but has risen back up to his current position of 26th.
If Spieth is able to win at Kiawah Island this week, where he currently shares the second-best betting odds, he will become just the sixth golfer in PGA Tour history to complete the career grand slam, joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods. He has two career top three finishes at the PGA, finishing runner-up to Jason Day in 2015, and T3 in 2019.
3. Rory McIlroy Returns to Kiawah!
The 2012 PGA Championship, the other time a Tour event was held at the Ocean Course, had 156 players in the field. 155 of them would like to forget they were ever there.
Those who have not repressed that week remember an all-time beat-down at the hands of then 23-year-old Rory McIlroy by eight strokes. It was the largest margin of victory in PGA Championship history, and the largest in any major since… Rory McIlroy won the previous year’s U.S. Open by eight strokes.
With two major victories at a young age, both in dominant efforts, most would have guessed that Rory would be closing in on double-digit majors by now. That has not quite been the case. While he has 19 Tour wins and 14 European Tour victories, he has “only” won two additional majors: the 2014 Open Championship and the 2014 PGA Championship. He has posted 12 top 10s in majors since without a win.
Despite being a two-time winner of this major, and appearing to have been playing a different course the last time it was held at Kiawah Island, just a month ago, we would not have been able to endorse Rory as someone to bet on this week.
After winning the 2019 WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, McIlroy went into an uncharacteristic winless drought, the longest since his first year on Tour in 2008. For most of that time, he was still posting high finishes, but just struggled closing. His iconic swagger appeared to be missing; that thing in him where he just realizes that he’s better than everyone else and dominates. It got even worse recently, as those high finishes even stopped coming. He missed the cut at THE PLAYERS Championship, where he was the defending champion, and The Masters, where he was gunning for the career Grand Slam.
That all changed at his favorite course: Quail Hollow Golf Club, where he had twice won the Wells Fargo Championship. Two strokes back of Keith Mitchell with 18 holes to go, McIlroy did not have a blemish on his card until a final hole bogey, winning by a stroke over Abraham Ancer.
It was the first tournament that Rory has won three times, and it brought the former world No. 1 back into the top 10 of the OWGR. He currently resides in 7th, and his recent form, combined with his 2012 landslide, makes him the sudden betting favorite this week.
Other players in the field who posted top 10s in 2012 include Keegan Bradley, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose, and Steve Stricker. The runner-up that year, England’s David Lynn retired after the 2013 season with elbow tendonitis.
4. Sleeper Brooks Koepka at the PGA?
When Brooks Koepka teed up at TPC Harding Park last August, he was not just the defending champion, but the TWO-time defending champion, having won the 2018 edition by two over Tiger Woods, and the 2019 PGA by two over Dustin Johnson.
Attempting to become the first player to win three consecutive PGA Championships since Walter Hagen took four straight from 1924 to 1927, Koepka was in good position after 54 holes, sitting just two back of Dustin Johnson. Uncharacteristically, he played his Sunday front nine in four-over, and faded into a share of 29th place.
It has been up-and-down for Brooks since. The four-time major champion struggled coming back from a knee injury, reaching what he called a “dark place” late in the 2020 season. The 31-year-old played better in the fall, but missed three cuts in a row over December and January. He then exploded late at February’s Waste Management Phoenix Open to win his eighth career title, and added a runner-up three weeks later at the WGC-Workday Championship at The Concession.
But low and behold, another knee procedure was needed in March and Koepka missed the cut in both of his starts since: at The Masters and at last week’s AT&T Byron Nelson. He has been tight-lipped about the injury, so it is anyone’s guess just how exactly he is feeling.
What we do know, is that he plays majors at a high level, with four victories and five additional top 10s just since 2017. If he is healthy, and we have to believe he would not have been playing last week if he was not, it becomes difficult to bet against him. He seems to be completely immune to pressure.
5. How About Hideki Matsuyama?
Last month’s Masters Tournament saw (finally) the major championship breakthrough of 29-year-old Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama. In a four-year winless drought of his own, Matsuyama surged to the top of the leaderboard with a shotmaking clinic on Saturday, after a weather delay had softened the course.
That is not to say he got an unfair advantage; everyone else played in the same conditions. Hideki then stayed comfortably ahead most of Sunday, winning by one stroke over Will Zalatoris.
Already an enormous celebrity back home in Japan, Matsuyama spent time there post-Masters, even receiving the coveted Prime Minister Award. He finally got back into PGA Tour action last week, finishing 12-under at the AT&T Byron Nelson. While that sounds great, it was only good enough for a T39 on a leaderboard replete with red numbers.
Despite just two top 10s in 18 starts this season, Hideki has played well enough to currently be sitting at 10th in the FedExCup standings.
Is he a threat to go two-for-two in 2021? Hard to say, but at least he knows now that he CAN win on the major stage, and he has had success at the PGA Championship before. He was the 54-hole leader in 2017 before finishing T5, and four of his last five starts in this event have resulted in a finish of T22 or better.
6. Club Pros Chances?
A defining wrinkle of the PGA Championship is the addition of club professionals, with the current version inviting the 20 low scorers from the PGA Professional Championship.
Club pros have not fared well in recent PGA Championships. In the August edition, the leading club pro was Bob Sowards who, at 6-over, missed the cut by four strokes.
In fact, none have made the cut since Ben Kern in 2018. In the past 20 years, the best finish by a club pro was Steve Schneiter, who finished T40 in 2005. The best ever club pro finish was former PGA golfer Tommy Bolt’s third place in 1971, where he was three back of Jack Nicklaus.
Easily the most well-known club pro among the 20 to make this year’s field is PGA Professional winner Omar Uresti, who actually made the cut at the 2017 PGA Championship. His classification as a “club pro” has been controversial in recent years, since the 52-year-old has enjoyed a 377-start Tour career.
The rest of the group is largely anonymous with the next best-known probably being 49-year-old Rob Labritz or 60-year-old Sonny Skinner, who made more than 100 starts in his PGA Tour career. None of the 20 current sport odds of better than 250-1.