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The Biggest Story Lines to Watch at the 2021 PGA Championship

The PGA heads to Kiawah Island in South Carolina this week, which means plenty of Dustin Johnson facts, Rory McIlroy flashbacks, and other contenders looking to take home their first Wanamaker Trophy

Cody Pearson/Getty Images

The PGA Championship returns this week! It’s the second golf major of the year, and the most gloriously irreverent of the four. It’s always been an article of faith that the PGA is last in the pecking order of golf’s most prestigious events—kind of like Dartmouth is to the Ivies—but it’s often the most fun for that reason. Here are the eight major story lines we’re following in advance of this week’s rumble at Kiawah Island.

What Should We Expect From Kiawah Island?

The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island is a widely praised Alice and Pete Dye design, which has already figured into some of the sport’s most iconic moments, including Rory McIlroy’s 2012 PGA win and the 1991 Ryder Cup that’s known colloquially as “The War by the Shore.” Kiawah is long and daunting—playing at 7,876 yards, it will be the longest major ever contested. It also presents many of the difficulties of a classic links course, with shifting ocean breezes and water offering a constant challenge.

When the wind whips up—and it very likely will—the primary beneficiaries will be those with a steady nerve and a sterling short game. If the greens are receptive, we could see a winner in the double digits. And if the elements unleash their fury, we could have a particularly nasty U.S. Open–like situation. I’m a bad person, but I’m hoping for the latter. —Elizabeth Nelson

Can Jordan Spieth Finally Complete His Career Grand Slam?

Listen—I’m a pretty self-aware person. I know my faults, my shortcomings, the things I obsess over for no apparent reason. But Jordan Spieth’s comeback is not one of those things. Golf’s one-time Golden Boy is back in a big way: After not winning a tournament for more than three years, Spieth took home the Valero Texas Open title last month. He’s finished in the top 10 in the past four tournaments he’s entered (including a T3 at the 2021 Masters), and he has three additional top-five finishes in this calendar year alone.

Spieth’s return to form is not a fluke, and I’m no longer the boy crying wolf because Spieth had one great Thursday in a who-cares tournament. This time it’s for real. His game looks great—outside of the How Not to Putt clinic he put on at the Masters—and more importantly, his mindset seems as solid as it’s ever been. As Spieth told Chris Solomon on the No Laying Up podcast last week: “I feel like I’ve got a ball-flight I can play, and I think that’s really key. As I’m still working to try and get things where I want them to get—and it still is a work in progress—I feel like if I need a shot with a driver, I can hit it. … That in itself is enough of a confidence boost for me to just feel that much more freedom on the course, to where I’ve been able to put four rounds together instead of two-and-a-half.”

Whether this will be the week when Spieth puts it all together and finally completes his career grand slam remains to be seen. But for now, having him back at this level of play is victory enough for me. —Megan Schuster

Dustin Johnson’s Homecoming

Golf’s Prince of the Palmetto State returns home with designs on bagging his first PGA Championship after finishing as runner-up the past two years. DJ’s form has not been particularly inspiring as of late: his defense of his weirdo–Autumn Masters championship ended in a missed cut, and he finished tied for 48th at the Valspar Championship, his last event. But none of that makes the remotest difference because when this lanky beast steps into the arena, there is always the chance he’ll take home the trophy. He’s just that good.

As with all things Kiawah, the weather will likely determine whether the strutting links lynx finds himself in contention come Sunday. Two years ago, Johnson faltered late on a windy day at Bethpage Black and finished second to Brooks Koepka. And the far less passive Augusta National he faced in April pretty quickly undid any aspirations he had of back-to-back Masters. It’s not that DJ can’t handle himself in poor conditions; it’s that in placid conditions, he is practically unbeatable. Watch the forecast. —Nelson

Brooks vs. Bryson

If it feels like it’s been a minute since we’ve had to address this feud, well, that’s because it has. Between a knee surgery and recovery time for Brooks Koepka, a dramatic slimming down from Bryson DeChambeau, and oh yeah, a global pandemic, these two haven’t had a lot to jar about over the past few months. In fact, the last public barbs they traded came during the 2020 PGA Championship, when Brooks took a dig at Bryson’s analytical methods, saying, “There’s no reason to be scientific with all the numbers and stuff like that on TrackMan—just go out and go play.”

Now, though, with the golf world returning to some sense of normalcy, Brooks slowly creeping back into form, and Bryson continuing to cultivate his reputation as a goddamn machine off the tee (seriously, did you see this video from the Masters?!), it seems like these two are once again on a collision course. So who’ll come out on top? I’ll never bet against a man who tweets this savagely—and already has two Wanamaker trophies to his name. —Schuster

Rory’s Major Damage

Golf is so bullshit because no matter what you do, it’s never enough. Rory McIlroy won four majors before he was 25, which means all of us genius golf commentators put that into our weird future-CV-generator and concluded that he was going to win, like, 2,000 majors total. Or 12, or 15, or “challenge Jack’s 18,” or whatever. Well, since his 2014 PGA Championship triumph at Valhalla, Rory has won Tour Championships and FedEx Cups and spent time at no. 1 in the world golf ranking and otherwise padded a Hall of Fame–worthy résumé with some of the most inspired play of his generation. But he hasn’t won another major, and for this we must shame him, because this is the life we’ve chosen.

Much buzz has settled on this being the week that the Northern Irishman will finally break his majors curse, and for good reason. McIlroy won the 2012 PGA at Kiawah and has shown excellent form as of late, including a trip to the winner’s circle at the Wells Fargo Championship two weeks back. He’s my favorite golfer, and at just 32 years old, he still has decades of great play in front of him. I’m rooting for him to win, but even if he doesn’t, JUST GET OFF HIS BACK. —Nelson

Collin Morikawa’s Title Defense

I’d love to say that then-23-year-old Collin Morikawa shocked the golf world last August with his PGA Championship win at TPC Harding Park, but his victory wasn’t really that shocking. The former Cal Berkeley great had been loitering in and around the winner’s circle for a while, earning top-10 finishes at the 2020 Sentry Tournament of Champions, Arnold Palmer Invitational, and Charles Schwab Challenge, and a win at the Workday Charity Open less than a month before the PGA. Sure, he was young, and competing in his first PGA Championship, but he was also familiar with the course and playing some of the best golf of his career.

This year, things are a little different. Morikawa is still playing good golf—he earned a win at the WGC Workday in February and had another top-10 finish at the RBC Heritage last month—but he’s never competed at Kiawah. That could put him at a disadvantage. Then there’s the fact that unlike 2020, when he entered the PGA with zero expectations, he’s now the defending champion. All that could add up to a less-than-title-defense-worthy performance. Or it could spur him on to a win that’s actually stunning. —Schuster

The Breakthrough Candidates

Last year’s PGA Championship saw Morikawa outduel his pursuers and establish himself as a frontline star among golf’s deep crew of up-and-comers. Thanks to its comparatively low stakes, the PGA often has been the place where players first taste the divine nectar of a major championship triumph—so who else is ready to take the next step?

Everybody knows that the 23-year-old Norwegian Viktor Hovland is destined to win one of these, and soon. After third-place finishes in his past two tournaments, there is a sentiment that this could be his week. Spaniard Jon Rahm’s game features an intimidating combination of brute force and precision around the greens, and sometimes he seems really mad—or maybe that’s just a tribute to fabled countryman Seve Ballesteros. Then there is the pint-sized marvel Will Zalatoris, who made waves with his fine play at Augusta and looks like somebody chopped Bernhard Langer in half but left all of the game intact. Don’t sleep on Daniel Berger either. —Nelson

Our Picks

Rory! Definitely Rory. No need to hedge this bet in any way. (You monsters leave him alone.) —Nelson

Partially because we haven’t mentioned him yet and I feel like he’s lurking under this article’s surface like a shark, and partially because I think he’s actually got a good shot this weekend, I’m going with Justin Thomas. JT at the PGA just always feels right. —Schuster