The wait is finally over. What used to be golf’s last major of the year now becomes its first.
In fact, it’s been 13 months since a major championship was contested, at the 2019 Open Championship at Royal Portrush. Since then we’ve seen the PGA Tour pause, pivot and restart, not really knowing if we’d ever get to see the game’s best play a major in 2020. Well, we are actually here. The PGA Championship is set to be played in San Francisco, kicking off a stretch of three majors over the next four months.
The event at TPC Harding Park marks the first PGA Championship to ever be played in San Francisco and the first major in the Bay area since the 2012 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club. Along with its West Coast location, the tournament will have a different feel without any fans on site.
The field of 156 players will feature 48 of the top 50 players in the world rankings, including all of the top 10. That list includes newly minted World No. 1 Justin Thomas, who overtook Jon Rahm at the top spot following his win at last week's WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
With 92 of the top 100 players in the world, it will be a stacked field with a shot at history. Oh, and did I mention Tiger Woods will tee it up as well?
Here’s what to keep an eye on this week at TPC Harding Park.
Throughout the course of history only one player has won three consecutive PGA Championships. Walter Hagen actually reeled off four in a row back in the mid 1920s. This week Brooks Koepka has a chance to join him in the record books. Two years ago, it was a tight victory over Woods at Bellerive. Last year Koepka held off Dustin Johnson to win at Bethpage Black. Now, Brooks heads to San Francisco in search of the three-peat, and he does so in great form.
Koepka had gotten off to a slow restart to the PGA Tour season and appeared to still be dealing with the effects of a knee injury he suffered in the fall. That was until last week in Memphis. Koepka opened with a scorching 62 to take the day one lead, which eventually led to a T-2 finish behind Justin Thomas.
When it comes to Koepka, his success has always been a product of motivation. He has admittedly struggled getting up for normal Tour events but his record in major championships is undeniable. In 2019, Koepka finished no worse than fourth in all four majors, including the win at the PGA. Over his last 12 major championships Koepka has racked up four wins and eight top-fives with his worst finish coming at the 2017 PGA at T-12.
Major season is simply Koepka’s time of year. Combine that with dipping to No. 6 in the world and a growing chip on his shoulder, don’t be surprised if Brooks is in the mix yet again.
What to expect from Tiger?
Unlike most of the PGA Tour pros who raced back to play golf after the pandemic pause, Tiger Woods has taken a slower approach to his return. The 15-time major champion has played in just one event since February, last month’s Memorial Tournament, where he made the cut on the number and finished T-40. Woods admitted that after a five-month layoff, it took a while to get used to feeling the “edginess and nervousness” of competition again. He tried to stay positive despite a final-round 76 saying, "I competed and played again. It was nice to get my feet wet.”
As Tiger tees it up in search of a record-setting 83rd win and a 16th career major title, what should we expect? Despite experiencing some back tightness at the Memorial, he appears to be in decent form. Aside from the overall finish at Jack’s place, Tiger showed some of the same ball-striking sharpness that caught our attention back in May at The Match II with Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
Now he heads to TPC Harding Park, a place where he’s had a solid amount of success. Woods won the WGC American Express there in 2005 and was a perfect 5-0 at the 2009 Presidents Cup played at Harding Park. This week, Tiger arrived in San Francisco early, showing up at the course on Sunday for a practice round—the same move that caught people’s attention the Sunday before the 2019 Masters.
The course comfort level is certainly there, but will the weather cooperate? With temperatures expected to peak in the low 60s all week in the Bay Area, the cool, damp conditions are not conducive to allowing Tiger’s back to loosen up.
It all leads to more questions. Only Woods has the answers, though, and at this point it would be foolish for anyone to count him out.
TPC Harding Park
A municipal golf course surrounded by some of the country’s most exclusive and highly regarded clubs makes for an odd choice to host a major championship. But make no mistake, TPC Harding Park can hold its own. Having seen the picturesque, Cypress tree-lined track a few years ago in person, I’m confident Harding Park will both test the game’s best and provide viewers with drama down the stretch.
The golf course is no stranger to high-profile events. Harding Park has hosted the WGC Match Play, WGC American Express, The Presidents Cup and numerous Champions Tour events. This will mark the first major at a place some consider a West Coast version of Bethpage Black. The Black was the blueprint for municipal golf testing the game’s greatest players, and the PGA of America is hoping TPC Harding Park can do the same. With 12 par fours, tight fairways and thick, moist rough, expect this muni to be a beast, even for the top players in the world.
Win: Brooks Koepka
Until further notice, it’s hard to pick against Koepka in a PGA Championship. Over his last six PGA’s, Koepka has two wins and two additional top-five finishes. He also saw an uptick in many important statistics at last week's event, including a 10% increase in his Greens in Regulation stats. Brooks is primed to win again.
Value: Daniel Berger
Arguably the hottest golfer on tour over the last six months, Berger is ripe for a major breakthrough. Overall the 27-year-old hasn’t fared particularly well in major championships, with just two top 10s in 16 career starts, but he simply wasn’t the player he is now. Five top fives in his last six starts, including a win at Colonial and a T-2 at last week’s FedEx St Jude Invitational.
Sleeper: Danny Willett
The 2016 Masters champion has rejuvenated his career over the last 10 months. After falling out of the top 400 in the world, Willett won the BMW PGA Championship in England last fall and has risen all the way inside the top 40. He was also a semifinalist at the WGC Match Play at TPC Harding Park back in 2015.