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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

The PGA Championship: Why it Matters and What to Watch For

Illustration for article titled The PGA Championship: Why it Matters and What to Watch For
Photo: (Getty Images)

Of the four majors of professional golf, the PGA Championship is too often the least anticipated major for most golf fans. Traditionally it was held in August, the final major of the season after the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open- tough acts to follow. Last year the tournament was moved from August to May but the COVID pandemic made a May tournament impossible this year. Somehow, despite the pandemic being far worse than it was in May, the PGA is back to August and is now the first major of the year.

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In a game often portrayed as elitist, the PGA is in many ways the workingman’s major with a history dating back to a time when the amateur scene was believed to be more admirable than the professional game. Early professionals, many from Scotland and England, came to America to serve the blue-blood amateur, not to be celebrated for their own playing accomplishments. So in 1916 at Rodman Wanamaker’s department store in New York City, a small group of professionals met and soon after formed the Professional Golfers Association of America. From these beginnings a major was born.

True to its working class roots this year’s championship, teeing off today, will be at a public course, San Francisco’s Harding Park, a 7,200 yard par 70 that will defend itself with high rough, demanding architecture, elements coming off Lake Merced and the ghosts of Sandy Tatum. Unlike the U.S. Open, British Open or Masters, no amateurs play in the PGA. This is the professional’s major for the prized Wanamaker Trophy. There will be no fans in attendance as the PGA Tour continues to do an impressive job of managing any COVID outbreaks within its traveling bubble. What a shame for fans because this year’s PGA has a definite energy building up to it that promises to pop.

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The Ones to Look For

Illustration for article titled The PGA Championship: Why it Matters and What to Watch For
Photo: (Getty Images)

Brooks Koepka

He’s defending back-to-back titles and trying to become the first player to win three in a row since 1926 (Walter Hagen). Having also won two of the last three U.S. Opens, you could make a real argument that Koepka is the most prolific big-game major hunter since Tiger Woods’ peak run in the early 2000s. Kopeka’s athletic frame deceives people who believe his game is largely predicated on power. Sure, he’s a strong player but the real differentiator in Koepka’s historic run has been his ability to summon shots when he needs them. Not only did Kopeka fend off a furious final-round 64 from Tiger Woods in the ’18 PGA Championship at Bellerive Country in Club in Missouri, he set the PGA scoring record in doing so. He followed that up by winning the 2019 PGA Championship with less than his best, beating Dustin Johnson by two shots.

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Justin Thomas

Thomas might be the best player in the world right now. He’s currently the No. 1-ranked player in the Official World Golf Ranking and he’s an intoxicating mix of old-school moxie and new-school power. He’s already won three times this year, including last week’s PGA event in Memphis. Thomas is a shotmaker’s shotmaker, leading the Tour in a myriad of statistical categories. He’s also the 2017 PGA Champion and the son of a PGA professional. He’ll be very hungry after having to sit out last year’s tournament with a wrist injury. In short, he’s not to be trifled with at any tournament, especially the PGA.

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Daniel Berger

It wasn’t long ago that people wondered ‘What happened to Daniel Berger?’ Now that he’s healthy again it’s time to start asking ‘What’s the limit for Daniel Berger?’ He won the Charles Schwab Challenge in June, finished tied for 2nd place in Memphis and it would not shock me at all to see the former Florida State Seminole raise the Wanamaker Trophy this week.

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Webb Simpson

Simpson isn’t nearly as physically impressive as Koepka, nor does he possess the arsenal of shots Thomas can call on. But Simpson can deliver under pressure. Alongside his trusted caddie Paul Tesori, he won’t be out-strategized at Harding Park, a course that will require accuracy and patience. Keep in mind that Simpson won the 2012 U.S. Open at the nearby Olympic Club which was designed by Willie Watson, the same architect of Harding Park.

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The Ones to Look Away From

Jordan Spieth

Spieth is in the peculiar position of being one win away from the career Grand Slam, while simultaneously feeling like he may never win again. Spieth’s movedc at the ball looks more forced than ever, and his putter cannot carry him forever. At 27 he’s already a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame and he finished tied for 3rd in the 2019 PGA Championship last May at Bethpage. But he hasn’t finished in the top 50 of a full-field event that hasn’t been held at a course near his hometown of Dallas (Colonial) in about a year. Something is going on with Spieth and I’m hoping he works it out. I just don’t see that happening this week.

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Rory McIlroy

McIlroy beat out Koepka to win the 2019 PGA Tour Player of the Year award in the same way Karl Malone won the 1997 NBA MVP Trophy over Michael Jordan. Koepka won a major, but McIlroy won the season-ending Fed Ex Cup, which sounds important but is really a cash grab. I’m not sure McIlroy is over his deflating performance at the 2019 British Open or if he’s just amassed such a huge fortune that some of the fire is gone, but the Rory we dreamed of doesn’t seem to be manifesting when the majors come around.

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Illustration for article titled The PGA Championship: Why it Matters and What to Watch For
Photo: (Getty Images)

Bryson DeChambeau

He has been the most talked about golfer of 2020. DeChambeau used his quarantine break and part of the offseason to add some 30 pounds of muscle to his frame (and 25 yards to his drives) fueled by revolutionary training techniques and protein shakes. In any other sport this would raise suspicions of PED use, but in the clean-cut image factory that is the PGA Tour, DeChambeau’s dubious explanations go largely unquestioned. He’s also recently taken issue with how he’s being portrayed by the media, his caddy also charged at a cameraman who had the audacity of filming DeChambeau during play, and most recently, DeChambeau shadily asked a rules official if he could get relief from playing a shot near some ants. There’s no question how mega-talented he is; he’s won the U.S. Amateur, NCAA Championship and has six PGA Tour wins. He’s also capable of acting like a tremendous idiot. By the way, unlike his nemesis Brooks Koepka, he doesn’t play well in majors.

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Illustration for article titled The PGA Championship: Why it Matters and What to Watch For
Photo: (Getty Images)

Tiger Woods

Sadly, Woods is not winning this week. It’s win or nothing for the game’s greatest player the game has ever known, and Tiger is not winning this week. I’m sorry. I would love to see it happen, but it won’t. This is by no means a reverse-jinx.

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The One I’m Picking To Win

Illustration for article titled The PGA Championship: Why it Matters and What to Watch For
Photo: (Getty Images)
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Jon Rahm

Rahm is due. The world’s No. 2 player has been a mainstay near the top of leaderboards for the last two years. He’s as seasoned a 25-year-old as you’ll find with 11 professional wins including the prestigious Memorial Tournament last month, which vaulted him to the top of the world rankings, until Thomas’ win last week. Rahm has the power to play from the rough which will be thick. He’s long been known as a prodigious talent who was also the top-ranked amateur in the world. I’m picking this week’s championship to be the first major step in Rahm’s young career.

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The Ones Who Might Surprise You

When you think of majors you might not think of players like Sungjae Im, Colin Morikawa, Max Homa and Joaquin Neimann but keep an eye on these names.

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Morikawa, 23, has awed many with his maturity and ball striking. Coming out of nearby Cal-Berkeley, he didn’t miss a cut in the first 22 professional events he played in.

Homa, another Cal Bear, tied for 3rd at the 3M Open two weeks ago and appears ready to start vibin’ on his favorite coast this week.

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Neimann, who grew up in Chile, has already won this year and has three top-10 finishes. His game is like a tropical storm waiting to become a Category 4 hurricane.

Sungjae is built like a clydesdale with the grace of a thoroughbred. He’s the 2019 Rookie of the Year and plays with an aggressive bent that warms the heart.

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Paraphrasing the great American amateur Bobby Jones, there is golf, tournament golf, and championship golf. The three things are very different. This week’s PGA Championship at Harding Park looks to be a showcase of major championship golf of the first order. Tune in, soak it up and enjoy.

After all, it might be another year before we see a major again.

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