History will be the theme this week when the PGA convenes the 100th playing of the PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis. The question is: Will history also be made?
This year’s championship is guaranteed to be historic in at least one regard — this will be the final time the PGA is played in August before it switches to become a May event in 2019, contested the weekend before Memorial Day.
As for the golf itself, the PGA has the most frequent track record of the four majors of giving a less-heralded player his first (and often only) major title. With the depth of quality in the players now in the game, adding another champion of that profile is a reasonable possibility for this week.
Just since 2000, the list of players to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy includes Rich Beem, Shaun Micheel, Y.E. Yang, Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner and Jimmy Walker. (It also includes Tiger Woods three times, Rory McIlroy twice, Phil Mickelson, Jason Day and defending champ Justin Thomas.)
Helping boost the confidence that they can contend from outside the ranks of the world top 20 is the lack of familiarity with the Bellerive course for almost everyone in the field. The Tour last visited for the 2008 BMW Championship, but out of the top 16 finishers in that event, only two — Jim Furyk and Brian Gay — will be playing this week. (The overall number of players this week from that 2008 BMW field is 12.)
The PGA Championship was last played at Bellerive in 1992, and only three players total from that field will be around for the 2018 edition — John Daly, Davis Love III and Vijay Singh.
More encouragement comes from the fact that 10 of the last 12 majors have gone to players who had never before won a major.
Bellerive was originally a Robert Trent Jones Sr. design, and as you almost always find with Jones Sr., the greens are sprawling, averaging 8,200 square feet. Jones’ son, Rees Jones, was retained in 2005 for a major renovation of the course, and his changes included the creation of ridges and spines that would create up to three or four distinct sections on each green. Any approach shot that ends up on the wrong side of one of those ridges or spines is likely to create a scoring challenge.
Bellerive also saw changes on two holes, Nos. 3 and 11, during work done in 2013. Hole No. 11, in particular, could be pivotal, as it has been shortened to be a potentially driveable risk/reward par-4.
The spotlight for the field will shine brightest on the winners the last two weeks on Tour, Dustin Johnson from the Canadian Open and Justin Thomas from the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. They also happen to be the No. 1 and 2 players in the world, respectively, this week, with Thomas also holding the distinction as defending champion, and are in a very tight race at the top of the FedEx Cup standings.
All of the world’s current top 50-ranked players are in this week’s field, as is every PGA champion since 1997, with the exception of 2001 champ David Toms. The field of 156 players also includes 20 club pros who qualified via a top 20 finish in the 2018 PGA Professional Championship.
Will the 100th PGA champion be a superstar, an emerging star or just a one-time supernova? Any of the three are possibilities, but while the PGA Tour likes to refer to its upcoming FedEx Cup events as its playoffs, the reality may be that what happens this week at Bellerive could end up as the Super Bowl for the 2018 golf season, with any of about a half-dozen players putting themselves in strong position for Player of the Year honors if they can pull off a major win this week.
Tournament: PGA Championship
Dates: Aug. 9-12, 2018
Where: St. Louis, Mo.
Course: Bellerive Country Club
Distance: Par 70, 7,316 yards
Architect: Robert Trent Jones Sr. (1960), Rees Jones (2005)
Format: 72-holes, stroke play, 36-hole cut
Winning Share: $1,890,000
Defending Champion: Justin Thomas
Marquee Players: Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Tommy Fleetwood, Patrick Reed, Webb Simpson, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods
TV AND ONLINE
Round 1: Thu 2-8:00 pm (TNT)
Round 2: Fri 2-8:00 pm (TNT)
Round 3: Sat 11:00 am-2:00 pm (TNT), 2-7:00 pm (CBS)
Round 4: Sun 11:00 am-2:00 pm (TNT), 2-7:00 pm (CBS)
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Today’s PGA Championship can be credited to the work of business mogul Rodman Wanamaker 102 years ago in New York City, who gathered a collection of golf professionals, which led to the formation of the PGA.
The PGA’s first championship was held in October of that year (1916), and was won by a man named Jim Barnes. It started as a stroke-play event, with Barnes being awarded $500, a gold medal, and the original Wanamaker Trophy. The tournament would continue to evolve, and in 1958, it made a permanent switch to stroke play.
Notable winners of the Wanamaker Trophy include Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Raymond Floyd, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Hagen and Nicklaus share the record for most PGA Championships with five apiece. Two surprising names missing from the winner’s list are Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson, who had close calls, but were never able to claim victory.
Bellerive hosted the PGA once before, in 1992, with Nick Price coming away as that year’s winner. Price’s winning effort was 6-under par, so it will be interesting to see what kind of scoring the course produces 26 years and one major renovation later.
HISTORY: RECENT WINNERS
2017: Justin Thomas (-8)
2016: Jimmy Walker (-14)
2015: Jason Day (-20)
2014: Rory McIlroy (-16)
2013: Jason Dufner (-10)
2012: Rory McIlroy (-13)
2011: Keegan Bradley (-8)
5 – Walter Hagen (1921, 1924-25-26-27)
5 – Jack Nicklaus (1963, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1980)
4 – Tiger Woods (1999-00, 2006-07)
265 – David Toms (2001)
-20 – Jason Day (2015)
There had been talk going into the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow that Justin Thomas peaked too early in the year.
Many thought that Thomas could not top what he had already accomplished earlier in the season: winning three tournaments, carding a 59 at a January event, and shooting a record-setting nine-under 63 in round three of the U.S. Open. To those people, Thomas said, “Hold my beer.”
With a final round 68, highlighted by a tenacious birdie on the 71st hole that was part of Quail Hollow’s notorious “Green Mile,” Thomas reached 8-under and won the PGA Championship by two strokes over Francesco Molinari, Patrick Reed and Louis Oosthuizen.
Thomas, the son and grandson of PGA professionals, took his very appropriate first career major in thrilling fashion, using a near flawless back-nine to emerge from a prodigious logjam that, at one point late, included five co-leaders.
Thomas’s victory in the final major of the season was accompanied by some legendary moments, but most notably a cliff-hanger of a putt on No. 10 that fell in the cup after a long wait on the lip; a chip-in birdie on the 13th; and a pristine tee shot on the 17th that basically sealed the deal.
It was an incredible end to an unforgettable 2017 major season.
FINAL TOP 5
1. Justin Thomas -8
2. Louis Oosthuizen -6
2. Francesco Molinari -6
2. Patrick Reed -6
5. Rickie Fowler -5
5. Hideki Matsyama -5
Dustin or Justin?
The engraver on the Wanamaker Trophy, if he’s daring, could have 5/6ths of his work done already on the first name, if form holds true this week. The big caveat, of course, is that it rarely has all season.
But Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas have managed to separate themselves from the rest of the pack a bit in the FedEx Cup race and the Official World Golf Rankings. Both have won three times this year, but each would like to put an exclamation point on their season by adding a second major title of their respective careers.
Johnson’s best victory was his January runaway at the Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, while Thomas is fresh off his best win, last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational title, considered the second-best win of his career in the Official World Golf Rankings hierarchy system. Of course, the No. 1-ranked title of his career is the title he’s defending this week, his 2017 triumph at the PGA.
DJ has never finished higher than a tie for fifth previously in the PGA, but he showed how explosive he can be in the final round last week, when he started 10 shots behind third-round leader Thomas. He then posted a first-nine record of 29 on the Firestone Country Club South Course to get Thomas’ attention, before eventually settling for a 64, leaving him in a tie for third and five shots behind Thomas’ winning score.
Thomas hadn’t been in real contention for a victory since his remarkable late winter run of three straight starts that produced a victory at the Honda Classic, a second-place showing at the WGC-Mexico Championship and then fourth place at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play event. He heated up, however, with an opening 65 last week and never relented, finishing as the only player in the field with four rounds in the 60s.
Assuming they don’t suddenly lose form, it’s not hard to imagine both of them being among the top contenders on Sunday at Bellerive.
If you’re looking for a statistical differentiator that could be meaningful this week, putting proficiency at long distances could be a key one. Rafa Cabrera Bello, the No. 30 player in the world, leads the PGA Tour in three-putt avoidance from outside of 25 feet, while world No. 27 Kevin Kisner is No. 2 in that category.
That’s not the only reason to give Kisner some consideration, as he’s coming off his most successful major, a tie for second at last month’s Open Championship, and he was also in the mix at the 2017 PGA, finishing in a tie for seventh.
Three other top players who also perform well in that same putting category are world No. 15 Paul Casey, who is third; world No. 17 Henrik Stenson, who is fifth; and world No. 10 Jason Day, who is eighth.
The three winners of the majors already played this year could double-down on their success and easily make 2018 the greatest year of their careers thus far with a win at Bellerive. Brooks Koepka, the U.S. Open champion from 2017 and 2018, is not only the highest-rated of the three, with a world golf ranking of No. 4, he’s placed inside the top 15 at the last four PGAs, including a tie for fifth in 2015 and a tie for fourth in 2016.
Open Championship winner Francesco Molinari, the world No. 6, finally saw his feverish play of the last three months return to cooler territory at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone when he placed tied for 39th, his highest finish since a missed cut at THE PLAYERS Championship.
Still, it should not be overlooked that Molinari is only three weeks removed from his victory at Carnoustie, a place where few gave him a chance before the tournament’s start.
Masters champ Patrick Reed is the world’s No. 12 player. He’s had only one top 10 dating back to the first week in May — although it was a solo fourth showing at the U.S. Open. Reed also should pull some confidence by a close call in last year’s PGA, when he finished in a tie for second.
Finally, you would never call the world’s No. 8 player a sleeper, but Jordan Spieth might be feeling at least a little fatigued with his play during this 2018 season. Spieth continues to fight through the most prolonged slump of his brief pro career, having finished tied for 60th last week at the WGC-Bridgestone.
It extended a streak where he’s seen more missed cuts (two) than top 10s (one) since finishing third at The Masters. The intriguing angle on Spieth, though, is that if he gets a scent of the top of the leaderboard, he could be doubly motivated, not just wanting to make up for his summer mediocrity, but also because a PGA title is all that stands between him and completing a Career Grand Slam.
Credits: Tour Media, Getty Images