Perhaps the most thrilling major season in recent PGA Tour memory sadly comes to a conclusion this week, as the year’s strongest field gathers at Bellerive Country Club just outside of St. Louis, Missouri for the PGA Championship; colloquially referred to as “Glory’s Last Stand”.
Justin Thomas will be a subject of attention and adoration as the event’s defending champion, but headliners are include Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, and others. In an event with limitless number of juicy angles, the following are six of the storylines we like best:
1. JT Defends
Justin Thomas’ victory at last year’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, his first career major triumph, was the highlight of a five-win season that made him an easy choice for PGA Tour Player of the Year.
Beginning the final round two strokes out of Kevin Kisner’s lead, Thomas took a solo advantage after a birdie on the 13th hole and was unshakeable down the stretch. A birdie on the 17th hole put JT up by three with one hole to do, and engendered a two shot win over Francesco Molinari, Louis Oosthuizen, and Patrick Reed.
The 2017-18 season has been more of the same for Thomas, but despite a three-win campaign where he stands second to Dustin Johnson in both the World Rankings and FedExCup points, the 25-year-old had to answer questions about his game going into last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. His year had stagnated since a fourth-place finish at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in late March, and in nine worldwide starts between the Austin and Akron, Thomas had a just two top 10s – both T8s (the Memorial, and Open de France). He was a non factor in any of the year’s first three majors (T17, T25, MC), while his worst results had been his two most recent; a T56 at the Travelers Championship and a missed cut at The Open Championship.
Thomas breezed to victory at Firestone, however. Acquiring a three-shot advantage going into the final round, he did not blow away the Bridgestone field in Sunday’s finale, but stayed composed while the everyone in the chasing pack – Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, and Ian Poulter, among them – collapsed at some point during the final round. He won by four strokes.
Despite seven previous wins over the past 22 months, Thomas said he was nervous heading into Sunday’s finale, but once settled in, he was able to use those experiences as a guide.
“It’s hard because you just — you take — I mean, you can learn just as much from winning a Major as I can winning in Akron last week or winning the Sony with a seven-shot lead on Sunday,” said Thomas.
“I mean, you can learn as much as you want from anything. It’s just the hard part is sometimes recognizing what you learned.
“I was really nervous going into Sunday. I don’t know why or what it was, but I was jittery. I was nervous that someone was going to play well, and I was going to have to play really well to win.
“I felt like it had been a little while since I’d won even though it hadn’t been that crazy long. But I was able to go back to those past experiences, and like the PGA last year when those last four or five holes, when I kind of started getting control of the tournament and just playing smart, playing aggressive to conservative lines and kind of picking our spots when we felt like we had them, and that’s just kind of what I was able to use, say, at a tournament like last week.”
“And then last year, you know, I remember looking up on 12th green, and I remember seeing there was six of us tied at 8 under, I think it was, and me with guys having anywhere between three and six holes left. When you have six people tied, it truly is anybody’s tournament.
“But I just, I felt like, if I didn’t make any mistakes coming in, a couple guys were going to make some mistakes and throw themselves out of it, and I just kind of needed to execute the shots when I needed to and just kind of sprinkle in maybe a birdie here or there.
“So that was something I learned from last year, just kind of staying patient and picking my spots.”
Coming in hot to his first major championship defense, it feels unlikely Thomas will not be up to the challenge, as he appears as unshakable as anyone on Tour. A repeat victory at Bellerive would mean a second career major, a 10th career victory, and all but clinch a second-straight PGA Tour Player of the Year award.
2. Grand Slam Spieth?
For the second consecutive PGA Championship, Jordan Spieth is going into the week with an opportunity to become the sixth player in PGA Tour history to win the career grand slam. A big difference though, at this time last year, Spieth was on a one-event winless drought; this year it’s a one-year-plus drought.
Not that the 25-year-old has completely fallen on his face, but he has been in a perplexing slump, especially since his solo-third place finish at The Masters in April. In nine events since, he has just one top 20, and six finishes outside the top 40, including three missed cuts.
That top 20 came at The Open Championship, where Spieth looked like Spieth again for three days, holding the 54-hole co-lead and making the final Sunday pairing, before collapsing on Sunday with a birdieless 76 and finishing T9.
Spieth spoke with optimism after The Open, claiming his putting was where he wanted it, but it was clear to everyone else that his game is still broken. In his Open follow-up, Spieth finished T60 in the 73-man WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
In Akron he saw a statistical breakdown nearly opposite to what he was drawing earlier this season: he putted very well, but his tee-to-green game was abysmal. With a different part of his game causing his downtrending results seemingly every time he tees up, the problem is much more likely mental than mechanical.
The good news is, his mental game can be fixed, and when he has that edge and has that confidence, few players rival him. Look for Spieth to exhibit an inspiring four-day effort at Bellerive, but to complete the story, he will have to avoid that one bad round that has plagued every one of his starts in the past two months.
3. Tiger’s Last Shot in ‘18
Another mark was added to the Tiger Woods Comeback Checklist in Scotland last month, as Tiger contended in a major for the first time since beginning the newest chapter of his illustrious career.
In his Open Championship week at Carnoustie, Tiger posted three rounds of even-par 71 and had a third-round 66 that put him right into the Sunday mix. Paired with eventual champion Francesco Molinari, Tiger looked as comfortable as anyone who began the final round near the top, and for a brief time, he even took the lead, holding a one stroke advantage on the 10th hole that suddenly had the sports world buzzing.
That lead was short-lived. Analogous to the leading football team that suddenly goes into prevent mode and loses their edge, Tiger went away from what was working and got extra conservative off the tees, and got himself in trouble driving with an iron on 11. A double bogey on 11 and a bogey on 12 later, and Woods had to go back to being a chaser. He finished three strokes behind Molinari and T6 overall.
Two weeks later, Tiger teed up again, this time at Firestone Country Club for the very WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Given that he had won the event a staggering 8 times in its less than 20 year history, expectations were raised at the course and event that hosted his 2013 victory, the most recent anywhere on his resume.
A 66-68 start at Firestone had Tiger within range going into the weekend, but he then imploded over the final two days, losing more than 7 strokes to the field tee-to-green and posting two rounds of 73 that dropped him all the way back to a tie for 31st place.
Interestingly enough, at both Carnoustie and Firestone, Tiger lost his edge once winning seemed like real possibilities. It says a lot about the psyche and sports that a man who has won 79 PGA golf tournaments suddenly needs to learn how to win all over again, but that is Tiger’s reality; he needs to get comfortable near the lead again. Perhaps he wants it too much.
Despite limping to the finish in Akron, Tiger remains a betting favorite at the year’s final major, and event that comprises four of his 14 career majors. His comeback year will not be considered a failure if he does not win, but it would be the story of the year if he does.
4. Looking For Major No. 1
Francesco Molinari’s breakthrough major victory at The Open Championship kept alive a recent trend of first-time winners at majors. Going back to the last 12 majors, an astonishing ten(!) of them were conquered by players who had not previous won a major championship, a testament to the parity of the PGA Tour.
Of the four majors, the trend has been most salient at the PGA Championship, which has had a first time major champion in seven of the last nine editions, with the two non first-timers both being Rory McIlroy.
Bellerive’s field is again rich in excellent players who fit the first-timer paradigm. Here are five of the more notable:
He remains in the top 10 of the world rankings, still very popular and heavy on endorsements, but 29-year-old Rickie Fowler has to be getting sick and tired of hearing that he is the best in the world without a major. He has 35 majors starts, 8 of which ended in a finish from 2nd to 5th, including three of his last six. He was runner-up at The Masters, but was a non-factor at the U.S. Open and The Open Championship. He is 10th on Tour in scoring average this year, but struggles with closing events has led to just 4 top-10 finishes. He continues to face as much pressure as anyone in the field.
As frustrated as Fowler is, he could go majorless for the next 12 years and still remain ahead of Ian Poulter’s curve, who is now 42 years old without a major. For a while, it looked like it would never happen, but a remarkable career resurgence over the past year-plus has the European Ryder Cup dynamo relevant again. He won the Houston Open in early April to snap a long winless streak, and is coming into Bellerive with six top-25s in his last seven events.
The reigning Race to Dubai Champion remains a popular pick at recent majors, but despite spending time in the world top 10, Fleetwood still has not quite pulled off a major triumph. He took solo-second at the U.S. Open off the strength of a torrid final-round 63. The one very low round in a tournament has become a habit recently for the 27-year-old. A second round 65 at the Open Championship was by far the lowest round of his T12 week, and a second-round 63 at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational had him in contention before a disappointing weekend. He has a lot of major attributes, but has not been able to put four rounds together.
Rahm is 23 and immensely talented. He is too young to “need” the major for his reputation, but it would certainly help add some highlights to what has become a so-so year. He already has five career victories worldwide, and 25 top 10s in just 57 starts, but his only quality major finish so far was a solo-fourth at The Masters in what was mostly a comeback effort. He missed the cut badly at his last two majors, but again will be a man to watch at Bellerive, mostly due to his immaculate off-the-tees game. He suddenly is struggling to close tournaments, however, and his fourth round scoring average is much worse than his other rounds.
The 28-year-old bomber has just one career victory, and it was at an opposite-field event, but he appears very close to adding greater cache to his resume, and he is the only player on Tour to post top-10 finishes in all three 2018 majors so far. Great with a driver and with a flat stick, Finau has one of the better all-around arsenals, making him a threat on any course. A T10 in the 2015 edition is his best finish in a PGA Championship.
5. Ryder Cup Deadlines
Regardless of how well he plays at Bellerive the week, things will be getting interesting for Jim Furyk very soon. The Captain of the American Ryder Cup team, Furyk will be keeping close tabs on the Ryder Cup standings, as the top 8 in points at the conclusion of the PGA Championship will automatically qualify for the team.
As of now, four players have clinched their spots: Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, and Patrick Reed. Current No. 5 Bubba Watson is unlikely to fall out of the top eight, as is No. 6 Jordan Spieth, but the jockeying for the last two spots could get interesting.
Here is the current Ryder Cup bubble:
7. Rickie Fowler 4724.491 points
8. Webb Simpson 4365.058
9. Bryson DeChambeau 4326.108
10. Phil Mickelson 4207.953
After the top 8 are locked in, those who did not make the team get a few weeks to convince Furyk to use one of his four Captain’s picks on them. Three of those picks are due after the Dell Technologies Championship, the second round of the FedExCup Playoffs, with the final picks needing to be in a week later.
Furyk’s job will not be easy, as the pool to select from is deep. In addition to DeChambeau and Mickelson, notables close to the top 8 include Xander Schauffele (No.11), Matt Kuchar (No. 12), Zach Johnson (No. 19), and Tiger Woods (No. 20).
The big debate could come down to how much Furyk values Ryder Cup experience, particularly in the cases of DeChambeau and Schauffele. DeChambeau also has the stigma of being seen as something of a lone wolf, and it is possible that Furyk could question how much the talented 24-year-old would mesh with the rest of the team.
Many will be most interested in what Furyk does with Mickelson and Woods, who have made a combined 18 teams. Are they a lock to be Captains picks if they do not get in automatically? Furyk says they are not, but the feeling is that it will be considered an upset if they do not both make it.
6. Best of the Club Pros
One of the most salient and popular features exclusive to the PGA Championship is the inclusion of a selection of golf club professionals from around the country. 20 spots in the field are reserved for these club professionals, given to the highest finishers at the aptly named PGA Professional Championship.
In modern golf, the club pros almost never make anything resembling a dent on the first page of the leaderboard, with Tommy Bolt’s 3rd place finish at the 1971 edition being the best finish for a club pro by far. In the past five PGA Championships, only two of 100 club pros even made the cut, with Brian Gaffney finishing 71st in 2015 and Omar Uresti finishing T73 last year.
Still, the club pros are a fun twist to the year’s final major, and if one is to buck the trend and factor into the tournament, there is a good chance it will be one of these five:
The 40-year-old club pro from Omaha, Nebraska earned lowest-scoring pro honors by finishing at 5-under, the best score among the five to finish under par.
A familiar name to the PGA Championship, Sowards made the field for the 10th time, missing each of his first nine cuts. The 50-year-old Ohioan had a PGA Tour card in 2008, making nine cuts in 22 events, with a high finish of T9 at the Wyndham Championship.
The Austin, Texas pro actually had a long career on the PGA Tour (which has caused some controversy among the club pro community), playing in 367 career events without a win, although he did notch two victories on the Web.com Tour. This will be the fourth consecutive PGA Championship as a club pro for the 49-year-old. He is the most recent one to make the cut, finishing T73 last year at Quail Hollow.
Rich Berberian, Jr
A 30-year-old pro from New Hampshire, Berberian did not make the cut in either of his PGA Championship appearances, but he did make the cut in three of the seven events he qualified for in 2017.
Like Uresti, Dobyns is making his fourth consecutive PGA Championship appearance, and he also qualified for the 2012 edition. The 40-year-old Texan who works in New York has yet to make a major cut, but he started seven PGA events in 2016, making the cut in three, with a high finish of T53 at the Wells Fargo Championship.