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Ten Things to Watch for in the 2020 PGA Championship

The first major of the golf season starts Thursday, and it promises a beautiful Bay Area course, rejuvenated play from Tiger, and new layers to the Brooks-Bryson feud

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Back in the old days, six months ago, the PGA Championship was scheduled to take place in May, the second year in which it had been restored to its traditional spot as the second of four majors on golf’s annual calendar. As with all of May, the tournament was delayed with the quasi-rational hope of eventually rescheduling it in some theoretically less diseased future. Well, we aren’t less diseased exactly, but sometimes dreams do come true, and following several weeks during which the PGA Tour has been able to hold gallery-free events largely without incident, the pros are set to tee it up at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco on Thursday.

With April’s Masters and June’s U.S. Open postponed and July’s Open Championship cancelled, the PGA now takes center stage as the prestige event all us golf freaks have been craving since Shane Lowry won the last contested major in Northern Ireland an unacceptable 12 and a half months ago. This week’s field features no shortage of gifted contenders and intriguing story lines, and the promise of four days of uncomplicated fun looms gloriously like the Golden Gate Bridge on our psychic horizon line. Here’s 10 things to look for. —Elizabeth Nelson

The Course

Nelson: Something of an afterthought amid the plethora of storied Bay Area tracks like Olympic Club and San Francisco Golf Club, TPC Harding Park is a much cherished municipal course founded in 1925. It’s named after Warren G. Harding, an avid golfer whose legacy of thoroughgoing corruption and incompetence as president makes the choice arguably a little too on-the-nose for our current moment. Nevertheless, the venue should make for compelling viewing, with British Open–like temperatures and the constant threat of rain and fog giving the event a potentially noir-ish feel. (Noir golf is the greatest golf.)

At 7,200 yards, Harding Park will play as a par-70, and the big hitters will be tempted to impose their will on a course that is relatively short by major championship standards. This will undoubtedly lead to some bonkers 400-yard drives yielding short chips into par 4s for easy birdies, but the Bay Area’s characteristic combination of rain and wind, coupled with the looming presence of Lake Merced for the final five holes all but guarantees that the risk-reward calculation will prove fatal to more than one contender at some juncture. This could easily be one of those weeks in which Dustin Johnson follows up a 63 with an 85. As Paul Weller once put it: That’s entertainment.

Brooks vs. Bryson

Megan Schuster: I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve spent a vast amount of time over the past few weeks hoping, praying, and making sacrifices to the golf gods to see Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau paired together at the PGA Championship. As of Tuesday morning, we know that won’t be happening for at least the first two days of the tournament:

But this ongoing feud is still the marquee rivalry of the event, whether the two actually square up or not. In case you need a refresher, here is a running list of things Brooks and Bryson have squabbled about in the past year, ranked from most understandable to most batshit:

  1. Bryson’s slow play
  2. The number of majors they’ve won
  3. How far they can drive the ball
  4. Steroid allegations
  5. Who could beat up whom
  6. How defined (or undefined) their abs are
  7. The proper protocol for dealing with fire ants

No, none of those are jokes.

I sincerely hope the PGA Championship organizers have a crystal ball or some other form of future-telling device that said these two will end up together in the final group on Sunday, or else golf fans are owed a big, fat apology. This feud is the most fun thing that’s happened in the sport in quite some time, and not leaning into it feels like a huge mistake.

A Tournament Without Fans

Nelson: Like any other responsible gathering of individuals, the PGA Championship at TPC Harding will not feature a gallery, and the course will be limited to players, caddies, rules officials, producers, camera operators, and broadcasters. Now, you might say: Isn’t that too many people in a confined area? And the answer is: sure. We probably shouldn’t be doing this at all. But in its defense, the PGA Tour has been as diligent and conscientious as any major sports league that insists on operating under these circumstances.

Beginning with Nick Watney in June, there have been fewer than a dozen cases of positive COVID-19 tests over the course of five events, a number dwarfed by those of MLB in its first week. On balance, there feels like little chance we will look back at the 2020 PGA as a superspreader.

The absence of the gallery has the potential to impact the tournament in other ways, though. Should a beloved titan such as Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson emerge as a genuine Sunday contender, a normal-times tournament would feature a deluge of partisans following them, creating loud roars and disruptions for their opponents. Imagine being locked in match play with something akin to Moses parting the Red Sea. That particular mode of intimidation will not be available at Harding Park, an anomaly which may favor players who are commonly discombobulated by the bright lights of a major.

The Return of Tiger

Schuster: Let’s start with the positives. Tiger will begin the week paired with Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, two pro’s pros who are friendly with Tiger (in JT’s case, especially) and have experience playing with him. These guys should help set an early pace and tone, and hopefully will kick Tiger’s competitive nature into overdrive. Another positive: Trevor Immelman saw the Big Cat’s swing on Tuesday and came away with rave reviews:

Now the negatives. There won’t be fans at Harding Park, so the “Tiger roars” other players fear so much won’t exist to give him an advantage. Then there’s the fact that he’s played only once on Tour since the season was postponed in March (as much fun as it was, The Match 2 doesn’t count), and he finished tied for 40th.

I’m never one to pick against Tiger at a major championship. He has enough experience under his belt to make him a threat whenever he wants to be. But given the long layoff and the strange circumstances of this tournament, I think there’s a reason his current Vegas odds are 30/1.

The Old Guard

Nelson: Tiger aside, there are a handful of over-40 entrants who will begin Thursday with a nontrivial chance of burnishing their résumé. That list begins with goofy, lovable, five-time major champion Phil Mickelson, who is coming off an impressive tie for second place at last week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational in Memphis. At 50 years old, Mickelson’s wizardly scrambling remains largely undiminished—watching him get up and down from all manner of hilarious predicaments remains one of the sports world’s most consistently entertaining spectacles. As always, Lefty’s chances revolve around his highly erratic capacity for keeping the ball in play off the tee. If he’s able to this week, he will emerge as a huge sentimental favorite.

It’s difficult to believe that eternally surly teenager Sergio Garcia is actually 40, but time marches on even as temperaments remain the same. It seems unfair to consider a career that includes 35 victories worldwide, a Masters championship, and a stalwart Ryder Cup record a disappointment, and yet that lone major victory can’t help but feel like a bit of a blemish on the future Hall of Famer’s track record. He’s finished second or third at the PGA three times and will look to break through this week.

The same goes for Justin Rose, the 40-year-old Englishman whose consistently terrific play over the years has yielded only one major championship, when he captured the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion. Rose has been atypically off his game of late, missing the cut three times in recent events, but he is the kind of player who could easily find his form and contend at a moment’s notice this week.

Finally there is 44-year-old Ian Poulter, the deranged clown prince of European golf, who has shown good form of late and would undoubtedly greet his first major victory with a GIF-worthy photo album of ultra-heelish reaction shots. A Poults triumph would be high comedy.

The Jordan Spieth Question

Schuster: What to say here that hasn’t already been said? The best way I can think to address our current Spieth conundrum is to make a brief analogy—one that I assure you pains me more than it will pain you.

I am a long-suffering Timberwolves fan. I have witnessed the franchise’s lone high (the 2003-04 season) and its many, many lows. And watching Spieth over the past few years has felt to me a lot like watching the early Andrew Wiggins years. Things started off so promisingly: for Spieth, a win at the 2013 John Deere and two major 2015 victories; for Wiggins, 2014-15 Rookie of the Year honors and a 16.9 points per game average. More bright spots followed—Spieth’s 2017 Open Championship win; all eight of Wiggins’s 40-plus point games and any time he played the Cavaliers. But neither has reached the heights we expected.

Here is where I must remind you that Spieth is just 27, and Wiggins is just 25. There is still time! And that time creates a sense of hope, no matter how many down periods these guys have been through. Maybe the Warriors can help Wiggins reach his Maple Jordan potential. And maybe this time, at this tournament, Spieth can break out of his rut and remind us all of the Golden Boy who was supposed to turn golf on its head.

Or maybe I’m setting myself up for another Sideshow Bob–esque walk into a rake. Both scenarios are equally plausible.

A Peaking Justin Thomas

Schuster: Yes! The world no. 1 is fresh off a win at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational (try saying that one three times fast), and he comes into this weekend looking to take home his second Wanamaker Trophy. JT has four top-10 finishes since the PGA Tour’s restart, and I’ll give him an additional one for his performance as an on-course correspondent at The Match 2 (even if he did call Charles Barkley fat on national television).

Given the late rush of majors we’ll see this year, there’s no better time for JT to have found this form. And we’ll have more on that below …

A Lack of an Out-and-Out Favorite

Schuster: Strange as this may be to say—given the global pandemic, fanless tournaments, and golfers social distancing on and off the course— we’re currently experiencing an exceptionally fun time in the golf world. The world no. 1 ranking is seemingly shifting week to week; there’s been more spice thrown around on the course (and on social media) than I can ever remember before; and players at every level of the game are proving themselves.

We’ve yet to have repeat winners since the PGA Tour restarted in early June, and each victor has more than earned his win. Collin Morikawa, who’s been a prime breakthrough candidate for a while now, finished second at the Charles Schwab Challenge in June and took home his second career Tour win at the Workday Charity Open in July. Jon Rahm briefly reached world no. 1 status after his Memorial win, only to have that snatched away from him two weeks later when Justin Thomas won the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. Dustin Johnson got his first win of the year at the Travelers; Bryson DeChambeau showed off his newly formed guns at the Rocket Mortgage Classic; and we haven’t even talked about the game of reigning Wanamaker Trophy–holder Brooks Koepka, who has two top-10 finishes in the past six weeks.

Sure, there are favorites on paper—Vegas gives the edge to Koepka and Thomas, with Rory McIlroy right behind. But it really feels like this first major of 2020 has a chance to be anyone’s tournament.

The Broadcast

Nelson: The season’s first major will be broadcast over a number of platforms on TV, streaming, and online. ESPN will televise coverage on Thursday and Friday between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. Eastern time, between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, and between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Sunday. Scott Van Pelt and David Duval will capably anchor that ship. For those in desperate need of their Jim Nantz fix, CBS will pick up the late afternoon coverage on the weekend, featuring his dulcet tones. Nick Faldo will also be there to tell you why he would have won if it was 1990. ESPN+ will have even more expansive streaming options that will broadcast the morning action (starting at 10 a.m. Eastern) and featured groups throughout the tournament, as well as 18th-hole coverage over the weekend. And for those brave souls seeking a truly rarefied experience, Scott Murray’s hole-by-hole live blog for The Guardian is among the most consistently insightful and uproarious writing in all of Linksdom. A major is simply not a major until Murray writes the words: “Sergio has ballsed it up again!” For those on the East Coast, all of this means major championship golf in prime time, which is basically the coolest thing this side of Tommy Fleetwood’s long, flowing locks.

The Winner

Schuster: For the multitude of reasons I explored above, I’m going with JT. There’s a confidence to his play right now that I’d been missing from him, and a second PGA Championship win would really put a cap on all the progress he’s made as of late. Granted, he just won last week, and it’s pretty difficult to put a streak together on the PGA Tour: Across the Tour’s history, there have been only 36 win streaks of three-plus tournaments. But I believe in JT.

Nelson: It feels like Rory McIlroy’s week to me. The 31-year-old star from Northern Ireland has twice previously triumphed at the PGA, but hasn’t bagged a major since 2014. Six years is too long between biggies for a player of McIlroy’s prodigious work ethic and talent, and he has history here: He won at the WGC Match Play event at Harding Park in 2015. Rory was just OK at St. Jude last week—he finished tied for 35th—but his overall form of late has been stupendous and he has both the brute force off the tee to hang in with the bombers as well as the finesse around the greens to come up big when the collar gets tight. (And with that physique, Rory’s collar is always tight. Rowr.) Look for the world no. 3 to walk away Sunday with his fifth major.