- The year's final major begins Thursday at Bellerive, where Justin Thomas will try to defend his title right after a dominant win at Firestone. Tiger Woods is making his first start in the PGA Championship since missing the cut in 2015.
Somehow, some way, the final major of the year is upon us. The 100th PGA Championship at Bellerive (of all places) begins Thursday, even though it feels like about three weeks ago that we were geeking out in anticipation of the Masters.
The pre-PGA hype always pales in comparison to the other three majors for a couple reasons. First, there's a World Golf Championship the week before; while the tournaments that come directly before the Masters and U.S. Open will change next season, Augusta has for years been preceded by the Houston Open, the U.S. Open has come after the FedEx St. Jude Invitational and the Open Championship follows the John Deere Classic. Those other three majors get a chance to breathe in their own spotlight for a couple weeks, while the PGA buzz has been stifled a bit by Firestone in recent years. The second reason, which we'll discuss in more detail shortly, is the PGA lacks a distinguishing feature, an identity that differentiates it from other golf tournaments.
But still, a major is a major. A PGA title counts just the same as a Masters or a U.S. or British Open in a player's career major championship total, a statistic that's become increasingly definitive in ranking all-time greats (again, more on this later). Thus, we'll preview the last PGA in August—the tournament moves to May beginning next season—with Augusta-level voracity. Here we go.
The PGA Championship is firmly behind golf's other three majors in terms of hype and prestige. How did this come to be, is it a fair distinction and will the move to May make a difference?
Let's first think about what makes the non-PGA majors so distinct and so great.
The Masters benefits greatly from being staged at the same golf course every year. Augusta has become a living, breathing entity of its own, a track that's hosted countless memories featuring virtually all the legends throughout the years. Every hole has seen iconic moments. Fans know the layout as well as the local public course they frequent. There's a level of familiarity that the other majors don't have simply because they shift venues from year to year.
Humans also tend to get most excited about the first of something—think about the level of excitement for Week 1 of the NFL. It's a new year! Your fantasy team has a chance! The same holds true for Augusta. After an eight-month majorless period, those ESPN promos showing the perfectly manicured Augusta grounds and already in-bloom azaleas represent a new beginning. Spring has sprung. Winter is over. Outside activities are possible. Golf is here.
The U.S. Open is known as golf's toughest test, even though the USGA has done its best to hijack the spotlight by screwing up its host venues on a way-too-regular basis. It's a week that caters to the sadistic fans who love seeing the world's best players flummoxed by a devilish course setup. Players must come with a conservative game plan and pick their spots to attack when opportunities present themselves; it's a welcomed departure from the normal birdie race at run-of-the-mill tour events. There's also the "Open" aspect—nearly half the field in any U.S. Open has played their way in through qualifying tournaments that are open to any player with a 1.4 handicap index or lower. Every year brings charming stories like the journeyman mini-tour player looking for his big break or the 16-year-old phenom testing his game against the big boys.
Then there's the Open Championship, a beautiful change of pace for American golf fans. It's the only major played outside the United States. It's the only major played on a links-style golf course, which forces players to hit entirely different shots than they do in America. It's the oldest major of them all. British fans act completely different than American golf crowds. The British Open is just gloriously different in the best way possible.
And then there's the PGA. The tournament has mostly been played on less-than-iconic private layouts sprinkled throughout the country, so there's really no prototypical PGA Championship golf course. Historically, it is not a particularly grueling tournament nor is it a birdie fest; winning scores over the past 10 PGAs have ranged from three under (Padraig Harrington in 2008) to 20 under (Jason Day in 2015). The field features all of the world's top players, which is nice but not exactly unique, as well as 25 club professionals whose stories just aren't as compelling as the U.S. Open qualifiers or the amateurs invited to Augusta (plus, nearly all club pros miss the cut). It has also suffered a bit from being the last major of the year; the casual fan has maybe had his/her golf fill by the time August rolls around.
This may sound a bit harsh, but the PGA Championship feels like a souped-up normal tour stop. A great field, solid parkland golf courses, a winning score usually somewhere around 10 under par. It just lacks a distinguishing feature, and the move to May won't change that. The PGA's best bet is to stick to exotic golf courses in America's most picturesque locations—places like Whistling Straits, Bandon Dunes and Kiawah Island. Here are the future PGA locations: 2019 Bethpage Black, 2020 TPC Harding Park, 2021 Kiawah Island, 2022 Trump Bedminster, 2023 Oak Hill, 2024 Valhalla. Kiawah and Harding Park aside, not exactly inspiring sites. While the PGA's status as the fourth major on the calendar will change, its status as the fourth-most prestigious major isn't going anywhere.
Has Justin Thomas overtaken his buddy Jordan Spieth as the de facto leader of the players born in 1992-1995?
Thomas has been the superior player for the past 20 months. Here's how the two guys' PGA Tour stats match up since the beginning of 2017:
Thomas: 7 wins, 1 major, 1 World Golf Championship, 16 top 10s, 8 missed cuts
Spieth: 3 wins, 1 major, 0 World Golf Championship, 17 top 10s, 8 missed cuts
Thomas's advantage is more pronounced in the 2017-18 season, which has thus far been a lost one for Spieth:
Thomas: 3 wins, 1 WGC, 7 top 10's, 2 missed cuts
Spieth: 0 wins, 0 WGC, 5 top 10s, 5 missed cuts
The numbers speak for themselves. Thomas is the better golfer at the current moment. Now, it's important to remember that Spieth has been in a putting funk virtually all year, and that he'll certainly bounce back sooner rather than later. But advantage Thomas nonetheless.
One place—one key, key place—where Spieth still holds an edge is in the major championships, and we've gotten to the point where that's the paramount statistic in assessing a player's career. Spieth has three majors, Thomas has one. Spieth has nine top 10s in majors, Thomas has two. Whether it's justified or not, Thomas won't seriously challenge Spieth's primacy among the 20-something Americans until he picks up at least one more major. As impressive as racking up PGA Tour wins at a historic rate is—Thomas has won nine of his first 112 starts on Tour—it just doesn't have the same oomph as major championships.
The Thomas-Spieth comparison calls to mind another case that highlights the majors bias: Rory McIlroy vs. Dustin Johnson. Rory has 14 Tour wins and four majors, while Dustin has 19 wins but still, somehow, just one major. The same goes for Jason Day, who has 12 wins, but just a lone PGA Championship on his major mantle. Thus, McIlroy is already considered a legend of the game while Johnson and Day have work to do to cement that status. Fair or not, you simply have to win the big ones in this day and age.
Tiger faltered big time on the weekend at Firestone, and he looked less-than-100% physically. Is it time to be concerned?
This stat below that the Golf Channel showed on Sunday was certainly an eye-opening one. Here are Tiger's average swing speeds with the driver at select tournaments this season, in chronological order starting with the earliest:
• Quail Hollow - 122.6 mph
• Players Championship - 119.4 mph
• The Memorial - 118.5 mph
• Quicken Loans - 118.0 mph
• WGC-Bridgestone - 117.7 mph
There are a couple non-alarming explanations for this downward trend—he's changed shafts a couple times, and perhaps he's simply throttling back in an heretofore unsuccessful attempt to find more fairways. But he's had four back surgeries, so you can understand why some people are drawing more dire conclusions from this slight drop-off. Plus, most players swing faster than normal at a hot and humid Firestone, conditions that aren't super comfortable for fans but help older players loosen up. Tiger went the other way.
Is this the fatigue that comes with playing essentially a full season for the first time since 2015? Is something wrong with...gasp...his back? The only person who knows how Tiger is feeling physically is Tiger, and when he was asked how his body felt after shooting 73 on Saturday at the Bridgestone he said he felt fine.
For his sake, let's hope that's the case, because he still has a helluva stretch of golf ahead of him. The PGA this week, then a week off before what could be four FedEx Cup Playoff events in five weeks, then one week off and the Ryder Cup after that (should Jim Furyk pick him, which he will). That's a grueling stretch even for a 25-year-old with elastic joints. For a 42-year-old with a fused back, it's something else entirely. Time will tell whether his body holds up through September.
The U.S. Ryder Cup points race wraps up this week. What are some storylines to keep an eye on?
Here are the standings with one tournament remaining:
1. Dustin Johnson* - 9,435.287
2. Brooks Koepka* - 9,338.472
3. Justin Thomas* - 8, 427.053
4. Patrick Reed* - 7,821.880
5. Bubba Watson - 5,584.137
6. Jordan Spieth - 5,199.806
7. Rickie Fowler - 4,724.491
8. Webb Simpson - 4,365.058
9. Bryson DeChambeau - 4,316.108
10. Phil Mickelson - 4,207.953
11. Xander Schauffele - 3,851.453
12. Matt Kuchar - 3,843.696
13. Tony Finau - 3,462.099
14. Kyle Stanley - 3,434.166
15. Kevin Kisner - 3,398.501
* Clinched top-8 spot
A reminder that each $1,000 earned this week results in 1.5 points, while the winner will earn 2 points for every $1,000 he wins. The champion this week will earn $1.89 million, so he'll get 3,780 points. Some things to keep an eye on:
• The race for eighth: Webb Simpson holds just a 39-point lead on Bryson DeChambeau, which translates to just $26,000 of PGA Championship money. That's roughly the difference between solo sixth and solo seventh. It's that close. Phil Mickelson is also well within striking distance, though he'd have to make up about $105,000 on Simpson and $79,000 on DeChambeau.
DeChambeau is particularly compelling given his recent newsworthiness for the wrong reasons. He was caught on camera having a borderline tantrum on the range at the British Open. He collapsed over the final five holes at the European Open then gave a petulant handshake to the eventual champion. He then felt it was appropriate to do a 10-minute sit-down interview with Mike Tirico to apologize and explain. That doesn't scream the kind of thick skin you'd want from a rookie Ryder Cupper on the road. I'd think his only path to this team is making it on points.
• Mickelson conundrum: Phil would do U.S. captain Furyk a massive favor by qualifying on points, as he would be a controversial captain's selection. His best finish since early May is a tie for 12th in Memphis, and other guys are simply playing better golf at the moment. For what it's worth, I still believe Mickelson is a lock for a captain's pick.
• Last chance to impress on major stage: Guys on the bubble for a captain's selection have one last major to show Furyk why he should pick them. Can Tony Finau pick up his fourth top 10 in a major this year and prove he's a big-time performer? Can Xander Schauffele contend yet again?
• Potential for long-shot winner to make the team: Because the majors in a Ryder Cup year are weighted so heavily in the standings, a player outside the current bubble picture could easily qualify for the team with a win. Say Jimmy Walker (21st in the Ryder Cup standings) wins his second PGA this week; he'd get to 6,110 points. That could be good enough to make the team. Anyone in the top, say, 25 is in with a fighting chance.
• Reminder that captain's picks won't be made until after the Dell Technologies Championship: All is not lost for those who don't make the top eight. They'll still have two or three events to impress Furyk, but each and every player will tell you that the preferred way to make a Ryder Cup team is to make it on points. The last chance to do that is this week, at the season's final major.