- Who's trending up or down heading into the PGA Championship? We examine Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, first-time winners, the Bethpage Black course and more.
While the post-Masters glow has just begun to wear off, the golf world’s collective attention has already shifted toward the PGA Championship. Such is the reality of this new PGA Tour schedule, which features a Triple Crown-like cadence—the four majors now come rapid fire in a three-month window, and then we’ll wait three-quarters of a year for Augusta to roll around once again.
All this to say: we need to stop and smell the roses, because the major golf season will be over before we know it. Toward that end, let’s take a look at who (and what) are trending in the right—and wrong—direction as Bethpage Black looms large.
• Tiger Woods. This one needs little explanation, but for those just emerging from a month-long, internet-less slumber: Woods won the Masters four weeks ago to truly complete one of the unlikeliest comebacks in sports history. In doing so, he captured his 15th major championship and reignited his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s all-time record of 18 majors.
Woods opted to skip every event between Augusta and Bethpage, a decision that surprised some but makes heaps of sense considering how little non-majors mean to him at this stage of his career. Woods will be rested—extra-rested perhaps, given that he’s staying on his 155-foot yacht all week—as he returns to Bethpage, where he won the 2002 U.S. Open and finished T4 when the Open returned there in ’09. He is the Vegas favorite, and for the first time in a long while, that seems appropriate.
• First-time winners. Both of the stroke-play events since the Masters were captured by first-time winners on the PGA Tour. C.T. Pan, a former world No. 1 amateur who starred at the University of Washington, held off Matt Kuchar to win the RBC Heritage. Then, on Sunday, Golf Twitter legend Max Homa was steady as can be in winning the Wells Fargo Championship, the culmination of a comeback from the 2016-17 season when he missed 15 of 17 cuts and made just $18,000. Both players will make their PGA Championship debuts at Bethpage.
• Jon Rahm. Rahm officially picked up his third PGA Tour victory at the Zurich Classic, a team event in New Orleans where he paired up with Ryan Palmer. The 24-year-old Spaniard was at his fearless best that week and now has eight top-10 finishes on the year, including in three of his last four starts. Rahm is every bit good enough to win the PGA Championship, so long as he can keep his wits about him on a course as vexing as Bethpage Black.
• Bethpage Black. This year’s PGA marks the first time the tournament is being held at a municipal-owned golf course since 1974. That’s a conscious choice, a nod to egalitarianism amid a sport so synonymous with exclusion. And there’s no muni in America better equipped to hold a major than Bethpage, because there’s no muni in America that is better than Bethpage. Period. The People’s Country Club can stand toe-to-toe with any golf course in the country, and while there was initially some concern that the course wouldn’t be pristine by early May, multiple people who have played the course in the last seven days—including a pro who will play next week—have said it’s already in tip-top shape. Now let’s hope the weather next week follows suit.
• Patrick Cantlay. Despite having just one win on his résumé—the 2017 Shriners Hospital for Children’s Open—Cantlay has crept up to No. 17 in the world by way of some remarkably consistent play. He has seven top 10s in 11 starts in the 2018-19 season, and he briefly held the Sunday lead at Augusta before two late bogeys saw him finish three back. The very next week, he had a chance to win again at the RBC Heritage and finished T3. Cantlay is sixth in strokes gained overall this year, a great metric to determine overall play across tournaments, one spot ahead of Tiger Woods. A big victory feels right around the corner.
• Jordan Spieth. At this point, writing about Spieth’s form feels like kicking a dog while he’s down. That’s how long he’s been struggling. There were some positive signs at the Masters, where he rebounded from a Thursday 75 to shoot three straight under-par rounds and finish T21. But that remains his best finish on the season, as he shot 74-75 over the weekend at the Heritage to finish T54. Spieth’s winless streak is approaching two full years, and he doesn’t have a top 10 since last year’s British Open. Consequently, he’s fallen all the way to No. 39 in the world. His extraordinarily erratic driving—he’s 205th in strokes gained off the tee—does not project well for Bethpage, where hitting fairways will be a premium.
• Player-broadcaster relationships. Well, to be fair, this is about one single exchange involving Brandel Chamblee and Brooks Koepka. On his Golf Channel podcast, Chamblee said the only players who can challenge Tiger at his best are Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson. Koepka, who relishes any opportunity to play the underdog, responded by retweeting a picture depicting Chamblee with a clown nose. Chamblee, to his credit, stood by his assessment, but Koepka now has all the fuel he needs. Expect a brooding, no-one-respects-me countenance as he defends his PGA title next week.
• Political self-awareness. In now-deleted posts on Instagram and Twitter, Ladies European Tour player Carly Booth announced a new sponsorship deal with Golf Saudi with the following caption: “I am honored to represent @Golf_Saudi as they acknowledge that women in sport is of paramount importance. Although culturally they are in a different place to some countries, they are doing everything they can to introduce girls and women into sport and lead healthy lifestyles.” She was heavily criticized for glossing over the steep discrimination women in Saudi Arabia still face. Just days later, European Tour CEO Keith Pelley announced that his tour would return to Saudi Arabia for another tournament, saying he was “perplexed” why golf has been singled out for criticism. Pelley’s announcement came just after news broke that the Saudi government executed 37 people, mostly Sunni Muslims, for terror-related crimes of varying legitimacy. Booth and Pelley both turned a blind eye to atrocities to preserve money-making opportunities. Yikes.
• Bryson DeChambeau. DeChambeau held a share of the first-round lead at the Masters after a 66, but he played the rest of the tournament in two over par and finished T29. He missed the cut at the Heritage the very next week. Since he caught absolute fire toward the second half of last year and won four times in nine starts, DeChambeau hasn’t finished better than T20 in his last six PGA Tour starts.