PGA Championship Starter: Storylines, Power Rankings, and Whatnot

PGA Championship
The flag on the 18th green blows in the breeze during a practice round prior to the 2019 PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 14, 2019 in Bethpage, NY. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

For the casual fans of the PGA Tour: no, summer has not already come and nearly gone. The PGA Championship, which had long been the last major of the season, moved to May this year for the 101st edition, a position in the schedule it will continue to hold for the upcoming future.

This year’s PGA Championship, contested at the brutally-difficult Bethpage Black Course on Long Island, New York, will continue to host the strongest field in professional sports.

Of the top 100 players in the Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR), 99 will be in attendance this year, with only World No. 5, and 2017 PGA Championship winner, Justin Thomas sitting out with a wrist injury.

Among those in the field include Tiger Woods, who captivated the professional sports world with his marquee victory at last month’s Masters Tournament, his first major victory in 11 years. The PGA Championship move did not occur with it in mind, but the second major of the year happening in May, rather than August, could make it easier for Tiger to hold onto that momentum, which would be unbelievable for the sport’s fandom.

Tiger, however, is just one of many insanely intriguing stories in the build-up to the PGA Championship. The world’s best players, in the world’s highest pressure setting, at one of the world’s most difficult venues? It cannot be understated how great of a week this should be.

PGA Championship Skinny

Tournament: PGA Championship
Dates: May 16-19, 2019
Where: Farmingdale, NY
Course: Bethpage Black Course
Distance: Par 71, 7468 yards
Architect: A.W. Tillinghast (1936)
Format: 72-holes, stroke play, 36-hole cut
Purse: $11,000,000
Winning Share: $2,000,000
Defending Champion: Brooks Koepka 

Notable Pairings

Starting Thursday on No. 1
12:43p – Tony Finau, Billy Horschel, Ian Poulter
01:16p – Jon Rahm, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth
01:38p – Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Jason Day

Starting Thursday on No. 10
07:40a – Sergio Garcia, Justin Thomas, Adam Scott
08:02a – Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Justin Rose
08:13a – Xander Schauffele, Hideki Matsuyama, Alex Noren
08:24a – Brooks Koepka, Francesco Molinari, Tiger Woods

Five Storylines

1. Spieth Chasing History (Career Grand Slam)

For the third-consecutive PGA Championship, 25-year-old Jordan Spieth will have the opportunity to become the sixth player in PGA Tour history to complete the Career Grand Slam – joining golf legends Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods in the elite club.

Jordan Spieth
Jordan Spieth plays a shot from a bunker during a practice round prior to the 2019 PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 14, 2019 in Bethpage, NY. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Unfortunately for Spieth, though, he’s entering in poor form, and not really considered a threat this week. Stuck in a year-long slump that nearly everyone thought he would have busted out of by now, his 2019 season has been a nightmare, as the former World No. 1 has failed to even record a top-20 finish.

Spieth hoped to get his game back on track with a strong showing at last week’s AT&T Byron Nelson, his hometown event, but while he played mostly well though three rounds, he again failed to put together four quality rounds. A final-round even-par 71 at the ultra low-scoring Trinity Forest Golf Club, which was the worst Sunday round of anyone who finished inside the top 34, dropped him into a share of 29th place; not quite the result he had envisioned.

Still, Spieth is a three-time major champion and is plenty conversant with the pressure that goes along with these big-time events. It would be surprising if he suddenly put it back together this week, but he is certainly capable.

2. Tiger Goes For Major No. 16

Let’s be real. Despite this event boasting a ridiculously-composed defending champion who has been nearly unstoppable on the biggest stages, and hosting a 25-year-old golf prodigy who would become the sixth player in PGA Tour history to capture the career grand slam with a win, Tiger Woods is THE story at Bethpage Black this week.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods smiles with Pat Perez on the practice green prior to the 2019 PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 14, 2019 in Bethpage, NY. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Last month, Tiger finally snapped his infamous 11-year majorless streak when a brilliant game plan carried him to a two-stroke victory at The Masters, his fifth career title at Augusta (first since 2005), and 15th career major championship.

Now, he heads to Bethpage Black, the site of his 2002 U.S. Open triumph with large-scale victories in two of his last six starts (2018 Tour Championship), top-six finishes in his last three majors starts, and confidence that has eluded him for more than half a decade.

A win this week would not only get Tiger within two of Jack Nicklaus’ all-time major championship win record, it would also tie Sam Snead for the most victories in PGA Tour history (82). This will be the first time the 43-year-old has teed up competitively since that Masters triumph, which has been a somewhat controversial strategy.

3. Koepka Defends

The modern day King of Majors, Brooks Koepka arrives at Bethpage Black as the defending champion, having defeated Tiger Woods by two strokes a year ago at Bellerive Country Club. It was Koepka’s second major championship of the 2018 season, and his third in his previous six major starts.

Brooks Koepka
Brooks Koepka plays a shot from the second tee during a practice round prior to the 2019 PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 14, 2019 in Bethpage, NY. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The 29-year-old world No. 3, who has more major titles (3) than regular PGA Tour wins (2), was unsurprisingly in the mix again last month at Augusta National, finishing co-runner-up to Tiger Woods.

As a whole, Koepka has been very boom-or-bust in the 2019 season, but he enters Long Island, New York in good form, having finished solo-4th at last week’s AT&T Byron Nelson. As the only player inside the world’s top 18 to even play that event, it will be interesting to see what kind of carryover there might be.

4. Phil’s Bethpage History and Fanfare

Not that he seems to be lacking fans anywhere, but Phil Mickelson seems to be extra popular in New York, and he is hoping that passionate crowd can help him in his quest for a sixth career major.

Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson plays a shot on the 15th hole during the final round of the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club on May 6, 2018 in Charlotte, NC. Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

If he were to win, which would be his second at the PGA Championship, he would pass Julius Boros as the oldest all-time major winner, but even though the Hall of Fame 44-time PGA Tour champion Mickelson turns 49 in a month, he should definitely not be counted out as a serious threat this week. He was the runner-up the last two times the U.S. Open was held at Bethpage Black (to be fair, he has finished runner-up at seemingly every U.S. Open venue), and captured an impressive three-stroke victory earlier this year at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

However, if Mickelson is going to get into the mix this week, he’ll need to play much better than he has as of late. Aside from an opening-round 67 at The Masters, which led to a T18, Phil has been awful in the seven starts since winning at Pebble Beach early on in the season – missing three cuts, and posting results of T37, T39 (no cut event), and T40 (no-cut event). Despite the poor results, he has earned the benefit of the doubt in the majors, though.

5. First Time Major Champions?

First-time major championship winners have been all the rage in recent PGA Tour history, with nine of the last 13 champions (dating back to the 2016 Masters) having not won on the biggest stage prior.

Rickie Fowler
Rickie Fowler tracks the ball after playing its out of the bunker on hole 5 during round one of the Wells Fargo Championship on March 2, 2019 at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, NC. Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Who has the best shot at pulling off the feat at Bethpage Black this week? Rickie Fowler tops most lists of best to never win a major, and his T9 at last month’s Masters was his 10th career major top-10. Xander Schauffele is a big-game hunter who finished T2 at Augusta last month, and now has two runner-ups and a T6 among his last four major starts.

Time could be a factor for 40-year-old Matt Kuchar, who sits atop the current FedExCup Standings, largely off the strength of two victories and two runner-ups on the current season. Tony Finau and Patrick Cantlay both were in contention late at the most recent Masters.

Other highly-ranked players looking for that major breakthrough include Bryson DeChambeau (No. 8), Jon Rahm (No. 11), and Tommy Fleetwood (No. 16).

Power Rankings

Dustin Johnson
Dustin Johnson putts during a practice round prior to the 2019 PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 14, 2019 in Bethpage, NY. Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

15. Bryson DeChambeau
14. Phil Mickelson
13. Matt Kuchar
12. Adam Scott
11. Patrick Cantlay
10. Justin Rose
9. Rickie Fowler
8. Jon Rahm
7. Jason Day
6. Rory McIlroy
5. Francesco Molinari
4. Xander Schauffele
3. Tiger Woods
2. Brooks Koepka
1. Dustin Johnson

Sleeper of the Week: Eddie Pepperell

While it feels like a little weak to pick the world’s 33rd ranked player as a “sleeper,” it is a lot more tenable in a field THIS strong (99 of the top 100 this week). Also, given how rarely recent major winners have come from outside the top 25 (just two of the past 20), and how in the past 15 years of the PGA Championship, just three winners started the week ranked lower than 21st: Jimmy Walker (2016, 48th), Keegan Bradley (2011, 108th), and Y.E. Yang (2009, 110th), going too far down the list feels unrealistic.

Eddie Pepperell 2018 British Open, Round 4
Eddie Pepperell walks to the 18th green at Carnoustie Golf Club with caddie Mick Doran during the final round of the 2018 Open Championship in Carnoustie, Scotland. Credit: David Cannon/Getty Images

Pepperell, a 28-year-old Englishman, won twice on the European Tour last season, and burst onto the PGA Tour radar when a ridiculously good final round at The Open Championship led to a T6 finish. His 2019 did not start well, but he has come back around, finishing T3 at THE PLAYERS Championship, and then T2 a week ago at the British Masters.

Maybe the best professional golf follow on Twitter, the amiable, self-deprecating Pepperell would also be popular among the crowds if he gets into contention.

We also strongly considered two other international players who have posted some eye-popping results in their current seasons, Spain’s Jorge Campillo (No. 59) and Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond (No. 72), but there just is not enough major experience, or American golf experience for that matter, to quite pull the trigger.

For anyone looking for an even deeper bet, Jhonattan Vegas (No. 80), has four finishes of 23rd or better in his last six starts, and he tends to be streaky as it is. He is a three-time Tour winner with elite length and his tee-to-green game has been surging lately. He could be an excellent fit at Bethpage Black.

History Spotlight

Seeing as the champion of the PGA Championship receives something called the “Wanamaker Trophy,” it should not be surprising to hear that the name Wanamaker has deep ties to the event.

PGA Championship
The tee sign for 16th hole during a practice round prior to the 2019 PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 14, 2019 in Bethpage, NY. Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

In fact, the tournament was the brainchild of department store mogul Rodman Wanamaker, who famously held a luncheon in February of 1916 for the biggest names in the golf world, one month before the PGA was created. Wanamaker saw a need for the organization and put up his own money to make the PGA Championship happen. The first edition happened that October, with a match-play format.

The inaugural champion, Jim Barnes, received $500, a gold medal provided by Wanamaker, and the “Wanamaker Trophy.” The event would continue to be a match-play format until 1958, and it has been stroke play ever since.

Two players share the record for most PGA Championships: Walter Hagen and Jack Nicklaus, with five apiece. Nicklaus also holds the record for most runner-up finishes at the event, with four. With a victory this week, Tiger Woods could join Hagen and Nicklaus.

As for Bethpage Black Course, this will be its first time hosting the PGA Championship, although it has twice hosted the U.S. Open: the 2002 edition, won by Tiger Woods, and the 2009 edition, won by Lucas Glover.

Largely due to the brilliant addition of a sign posted on its front gate, which reads “Warning: The Black Course Is An Extremely Difficult Course Which We Recommend Only For Highly Skilled Golfers” Bethpage Black has built a reputation as one of the world’s toughest courses. It is an A.W. Tillinghast design, established in 1936.

Stat of the Week

74.15 – The average finish of the highest-ranked club pro over the past 20 PGA Championships.

Alex Beach
Alex Beach watches his shot on the 13th hole during Final Round of the PGA Professional Championship held at Crosswater Club on June 20, 2017 in Sunriver, Oregon. Photo by Montana Pritchard/PGA of America via Getty Images

The addition of club pros – 20 spots are reserved for them in each edition- is one of the most conspicuous aspects of this particular major championship, and while nobody is suggesting the tradition gets scrapped, it is impossible to deny that they have had absolutely no effect on the leaderboard in a very long time.

In those past twenty years, the lowest finish by a club professional was the T40 posted by BYU product Steve Schneiter in 2005, who was making his eighth start in the event. Impressively, Schneiter outplayed Sunday partner Luke Donald, who was ranked 15th in the world coming into the week.

This year’s class of club pros is again, not expected to do a lot. The club pro with the highest odds is 29-year-old Alex Beach, the champion of this year’s PGA Professional Championship, the event that decides which pros make the PGA Championship field. Beach’s odds are currently listed at 2000-1.

Hole of the Week

No.4, Bethpage Black Course
Par 5, 517 yards

The first par-5 at Bethpage Black is its signature hole. Measuring 517 yards, the hole doesn’t seem too daunting on paper, but with its double dogleg and criss-crossing bunkers, it will require strategy for both long bombers and finesse players alike.

The left bunker will require a carry of over 290 yards, and its about 330 to the end of the second dogleg’s fairway. Those who attack will be left with a 200 yards or so to approach an uphill green that is not easy to hold.

End Quote

“I don’t take the disappointment. I take more confidence than disappointment. The actual result doesn’t show really how well I played. We kind of had a tough draw the first two days and then still be, what was it 11-under for the week is solid playing on any golf course. So, I’ll go to Bethpage and need to — I made a few mental errors kind, of the doubles I made and couple of bogies I made were just unnecessary and I think that’s stuff that comes up after taking a couple weeks off and playing.

“So, I’ll kind of look back, view the round, learn from that and hopefully kind of tighten it up a little.”
Jordan Spieth, after his 29th place finish at last week’s AT&T Byron Nelson


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