US PGA Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
AND SO, three months after it was originally due to be staged, the US PGA Championship will be staged at Harding Park in San Francisco this week, marking the first major of this truncated and very strange golf season. It will be played without fans and a number of players have decided to sit it out, including England’s Lee Westwood and Eddie Pepperell, who have both made it clear that they just don’t fancy going into quarantine - and are not entirely happy with the way the pandemic is being dealt with in the United States.
This tournament should have been staged in May and much has changed since then, not least the form of the players we might have expected to be contending for the title.
Defending champion Brooks Koepka was a shadow of the man who lifted the impressive Wanamaker Trophy in 2019 until the first round of the WGC St Jude Invitational, proving conclusively that form may be temporary but class is permanent. He opened the tournament with a sensational round of 62 to announce his return to form. Having missed the cut at the 3M Open, he spent time with coach Claude Harmon and short-game coach Pete Cowan and, all of a sudden, looked like a different player. He is aiming to write a piece of history this week by winning this tournament for a third successive time. And after a runner-up finish at St Jude, he may just be ready to do that.
(Brooks Koepka Pursues History)
Rory McIlroy will be hoping for something similar. He has been dethroned as world number one and has struggled to rediscover the form he displayed before the shutdown, when he looked like he might win every time he teed it up.
But this is different territory altogether. McIlroy is desperate to win a fifth major. It is scarcely credible that the last time he did so was at this very tournament SIX years ago, when he also won The Open. He is a two-time PGA champion, having also won the tournament in 2012 and, historically, McIlroy tends to play his best golf at this time of year. He loves playing in the heat - it will be hot in San Francisco. And he has also won on this golf course. We shouldn’t be terribly surprised about McIlroy’s loss of form - it’s not the first time it has happened, and it won’t be the last. And it will be temporary. He is a streaky player and will have been working hard at home in Florida to ensure he is ready for what is very much the business end of the season. The FedEx Cup Playoffs are just around the corner and there are three majors to come, starting here.
McIlroy has admitted that he has struggled to lift himself at tournaments being played without fans. He is an individual who feeds off spectators. But this is a major and we can all be sure that his mindset will be just fine. What he really needs is to get off to a good start and hole a few good putts.
(Rory Looking For A Spark)
Bryson DeChambeau will obviously be among the favourites but he proved that he remains fallible when he ran up a 10 at The Memorial. The American is clearly now able to bully most golf courses into submission with his enormous power but Harding Park is going to have plenty of thick rough, and the greens will be hard and fast. In other words, patience will be required. Lots of it. It remains to be seen whether DeChambeau possesses that.
And that clearly also applies to Jon Rahm, world number one for a fortnight, who would be the first to admit that he operates on a pretty short fuse. Rahm will win majors but his best chances are likely to come at The Masters and The Open Championship. It could well be that he struggles to secure either the US PGA or US Open.
Before his victory at Muirfield Village, Rahm looked like a little boy lost, and there were plenty of temper tantrums. His reign as world number one did not last long - he has been usurped by Justin Thomas - but he will be determined to get it back.
And Harding Park is going to present him with a real challenge. He is going to have to keep the ball in play and he - and everybody else - is going to have to cope with lightning fast greens. Over 72 holes, you are going to get some bad breaks - and you are definitely going to face some challenging putts. If Rahm is to have any chance here he is going to have to take the rough with the smooth, accept the bad breaks and move on. Whether he is capable of doing that is open to debate.
(Jon Rahm Keen To Secure 1st Major)
Tony Finau finished in a tie for third at the 3M Open. With all the fuss that DeChambeau has attracted, it is easy to forget the vast distances that Finau strikes the ball. And unlike DeChambeau, Finau does it with effortless powers. It is hard to believe that he still only has one victory to his name because, on the face of it, he doesn’t seem to have any weaknesses. And that means there must be something going on between his ears - maybe, when the chips are really, down, he simply tries too hard.
However, he has had his coach, Boyd Summerhayes, on his bag lately and that could turn out to be a masterstroke. Summerhayes knows Finau’s game inside out and has definitely helped him to adopt a more relaxed approach. More important than that, he also knows what makes Finau tick. For the US PGA, Finau is turning to his brother, Gipper, to carry the bag - and nobody knows him better.
He definitely has the game to win a major. We are about to find out if he has the temperament to do so.
When Koepka won at Bethpage Black in 2019 he defeated Dustin Johnson by two shots. In the process he became the first player to successfully defend the US PGA and US Open and only the fourth in history to successfully defend two majors in a career. And at the age of 29, he became the only golfer under the age of 30 to win at least four majors. The victory took him back to the top of the world rankings, while Johnson became the eighth player to finish second in all four majors.
Koepka’s performance was stellar. He opened with a 63 and followed it with a 65 to record the lowest 36-hole score in major history and largest halfway lead (seven shots) in the tournament’s history. A 70 in the third round meant that he was still seven in front going into the final round, but a large charge from Johnson reduced that to a solitary shot. In the end, a 74 was good enough to see him over the finishing line.
(Can Tiger Pull Another Rabbit From His Hat?)
There was a lot of attention on Tiger Woods after his victory in The Masters, but the 15-time major champion missed the cut. And with only one disappointing outing at The Memorial since the restart, it is difficult to imagine that Woods will not suffer exactly the same fate at Harding Park. At a time when he surely needs as much competitive action as possible to shake off the ring rust, Woods took the surprising decision to sit out the WGC St Jude. Of course we have no way of knowing what sort of shape his body is in because Woods always keeps his state of health close to his chest but it is fair to assume that he must be struggling with his back again.
Johnson is overdue a second major. He should have won this tournament in 2010 but missed out to Martin Kaymer after grounding his club in a hazard on the 72nd hole. Although he won the Travelers Championship to maintain his extraordinary run of victories, the Dustinator is fighting back problems.
Look out, too, for another big week from Brendon Todd, a multiple winner this season who suddenly looks like he can contend every time he plays.
By modern standards, Harding Park is pretty short, measuring 7,234 yards from the championship tees. It was originally designed in 1925 by Willie Watson and Sam Whiting and underwent a major redesign in 2005. Featuring undulating fairways and plenty of cypress trees, it was extended by 400 yards. The greens were rebuilt seven years ago.
The PGA was won in 2015 by Jason Day, in 2016 by Jimmy Walker, in 2017 by Justin Thomas, and in 2018 and 2019 by Koepka. Soon we'll discover who shall lift the Wanamaker Trophy this year.
Rory McIlroy. It’s just been too long, Rory
Bryson DeChambeau. Will be trying to eat this place for breakfast
Brooks Koepka. Looking to make it three in a row
Rory McIlroy. Will surely be lifted by playing in the year’s first major
Bryson DeChambeau. Must keep it in play
Brooks Koepka. Confidence flooding back
Justin Thomas. As consistent as any
Xander Schauffele. A major winner in waiting
Jon Rahm. Patience is the key
Dustin Johnson. Long overdue a second major
Collin Morikawa. Looking to take the major step
Tony Finau. Ready to make the next step
Brendon Todd. Playing like a man possessed
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