PGA Championship preview: Golf’s majors return

Emilee Geist

And the last shall be first. The PGA Championship, for so long the fourth of golf’s four majors — both by schedule and, in the eyes of some stuffy golf types, prestige — now gets the marquee treatment as golf’s only major technically taking place during the 2019-20 season. 

This week’s PGA kicks off an unprecedented seven-majors-in-12-months run for golf. Even if we’re still a little bit uncertain and tentative here, it’s still major. Brooks Koepka will be going for a three-peat, Tiger Woods will be going for the outright career PGA Tour victories mark, and everyone else will be looking for one of those career-defining wins. This’ll be fun. 

How will this PGA Championship be different? 

After a single year in the newly scheduled month of May, the PGA Championship returns to the sweltering month of August. Only difference is, this time the schedule change wasn’t by choice. The PGA had to scramble to reschedule its early-May event after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all of sports in March. Grandstands came down; sponsors’ tents were struck. 

The event will take place without fans — not even fake ones, like in baseball — and the lack of a gallery will definitely give a different, more muted vibe to this year’s first major. The lack of energy will be palpable, with no roars pumping up players, no galleries getting in players’ heads. But there won’t be any asterisk attached to this win, so for that reason alone, expect the world’s best to be at their best. 

TPC Harding Park will host its first major this week. (Photo by Gary Kellner/PGA of America via Getty Images)

TPC Harding Park: What’s the story with the course? 

Created in 1925, Harding Park sits alongside Lake Merced on the western side of San Francisco. Named for former president Warren G. Harding, the course enjoyed some notoriety in its early days, becoming a well-known PGA Tour stop in the 1960s. Gary Player and Ken Venturi were among the pros who won tournaments at Harding Park. But as a municipal course, its budget was dependent on city revenues, and by 1998 it had deteriorated so badly that it was used as a parking lot for the U.S. Open held at the nearby Olympic Club.

Matters have improved since then. Harding Park has undergone two major renovations in the last 15 years to prepare for hosting major golf championships: a 400-yard extension in 2005, and a reworking of the greens in 2013. The course has hosted several high-profile events, including the Presidents Cup in 2005, and is the first western location for a PGA Championship since 1998. 

At its normal height, the course welcomes 1,000 golfers a day. As of July, that number was only about 200. Want to play? Greens fees range from $64 weekdays/$78 weekends for local residents to $180/$200 for the rest of us. But you’re probably not going to be able to get a tee time this week. 

As a muni, Harding Park isn’t exactly a tough course. For the PGA Championship, the course will play to a par 70, with a distance of 7,251 yards. Players won’t be able to drive over the massive cypress trees that line the course the way they can at other locales. The PGA will narrow the fairways, speed up the relatively flat greens and and lengthen the rough to help add a bit of drama to the proceedings, but the winning score here will be deep below par, possibly even the high teens. 

The champ is here. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images for Fleishman)

Can Brooks Koepka three-peat? 

Golf’s reigning badass had struggled throughout the entirety of the season, even long before the pandemic. Prior to last week, he notched only a single finish higher than T32 — a seventh-place finish at the RBC Heritage — since last fall. But then he rallied to a T2 finish at last week’s WGC, looking as tough as ever. As of Tuesday, BetMGM lists Koepka at +1000 (bet $100 to make $1000), tied for the best in the field. He might just be peaking at exactly the right time, yet again.

Will Bryson DeChambeau overwhelm the field and the course? 

It’s entirely possible. DeChambeau has come back from the quarantine a Golf Hulk, fully capable of destroying any and every course you throw in his way. He’s going off at +1600, one of the best lines in the field, which seems about right given both the state of his game and the way Harding Park sets up so well for long hitters. DeChambeau leads the Tour in shots gained off the tee, and ranks second in shots gained overall. His performance has been a touch spotty — a missed cut and a T30 — since starting the “restart season” with four straight top-10s and a victory, but he’s still one of the surest bets out there. 

Can Jon Rahm hold it together?

Rahm ascended to the world No. 1 spot briefly, a remarkable rise for one of golf’s most mercurial players. Like DeChambeau, he’s got major-winning talent; like DeChambeau, he hasn’t yet won that major. Rahm’s temper will always be a question, but he’s ridden it this far, so it’s reasonable to figure he could ride it to a major win. Rahm’s +1500 odds put him just below the top players in the field; if he’s able to stay on point for all four rounds, he’s a sound bet. 

Can Rory McIlroy win another major? 

Strange as it seems given the start of his career and the non-major success of late, Rory McIlroy hasn’t won a major in six years. He’s the defending Player of the Year — don’t remind Brooks Koepka of that — but he hasn’t been able to put together a good four rounds at a major in quite some time. He’s listed at +1400 by BetMGM, which may be more faith than he deserves in these big moments. But no player might benefit more from not having a gallery breathing down his neck. 

Is Tiger Woods going to show up here? 

Tiger’s going off at +3000, a line that seems a little more attractive than realistic. (Big names always draw an outsize number of bets, driving down the line.) He hasn’t done much to prove he’s one of the best in the world at the moment, but then again that’s what we could have said prior to Augusta in 2019. The trick for Woods is twofold: one, he has to outrun an entire field of players who are, at their best, better than him by a substantial margin, and two, he has to keep his own body intact. That won’t be an easy feat when he’ll be playing in cooler temperatures than he’d like. 

The design of Harding Park and the slick greens will give Woods a fighting chance. He ought to make the cut, but beyond that? A 16th major probably isn’t in the cards just yet. 

Tiger’s always lurking. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Who else is in the mix? 

It’s always worth remembering that Jordan Spieth is just a PGA Championship away from notching the career Grand Slam. But Spieth has been on and off — much more off than on — over the last few years, as reflected in his +5500 odds this week. 

Spieth’s old running mate Justin Thomas has far eclipsed Spieth at this particular moment, even though JT has “only” one major. Thomas is coming in hot, and his ball-striking consistency ought to keep him in the hunt right through Sunday. His +1000 odds tie him with Koepka among the lowest in the field. 

For sleepers, you could do worse than Matthew Fitzpatrick (+4500), coming off two straight top-six finishes and, given that he’s from England, a player accustomed to the gloom and fog that ought to accompany much of this weekend’s rounds. There’s also perpetual bridesmaid Tony Finau (+5000), who always seems right on the edge of breaking through. And could the lack of crowds help someone like Rickie Fowler (+4000), who’s the reigning Best Never To Win A Major leader? We’ll find out soon enough. 

How has the COVID outbreak changed the championship?

The PGA Championship was originally slated for May, but when all of sports shut down in March, everything went out the window. California’s shelter-in-place laws brought work at Harding Park to a total standstill. Once crews could go back to work, they had to confront a new reality: a major with no fans and a drastically reduced number of on-site personnel, officials, volunteers and media. 

The cavernous merchandise tent that’s a tradition at almost every major has been repurposed into a staging area for players. The vast media center has been scaled down due to the virtual nature of most coverage. A series of “bubbles” around the property will keep various groups from intermingling. While the PGA can’t enact an NBA-style bubble — there’s simply not enough room to keep everyone contained in one location — there will be multiple checkpoints and examinations. If one infection does pierce the bubble, it theoretically wouldn’t derail the entire championship. 

TV/online options

During the week, ESPN takes over broadcasting the PGA Championship, bringing to a close 29 years of TNT control. As you’d expect, ESPN will be deploying all of its assets, among them Scott Van Pelt and ESPN+, in service of the major. 

Golf fans in need of some early-morning (West Coast time) play can pick up the first two rounds at Harding Park on ESPN+, which will broadcast the tournament from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern Time. At that point, ESPN will pick up coverage and carry it through the end of the round, which will cut into prime time on the East Coast. ESPN+ will also have featured-group coverage throughout the entire tournament.

Weekend coverage will start with ESPN+, then run on ESPN from 1-4 p.m. Saturday and noon-3 p.m. Sunday. Coverage on CBS will run from 4-10 p.m. Eastern on Saturday, and 3-9 p.m. Eastern on Sunday. You’re going to want to check your local listings, as the saying goes. CBS will also break out all kinds of technological wizardry, including drone flyovers and 360-degree views of players’ swings. 

Enjoy the tournament, friends. Golf’s majors are back.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at [email protected]

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