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Seven Questions Ahead of the 2023 PGA Championship

Can anyone stop the Jon Rahm Express? With the major’s return to Oak Hill, we examine Justin Thomas’s repeat chances, the latest with Rory McIlroy, the LIV crew, and more.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Who’s ready to put the May in major championship golf? In 2019, the Professional Golfers’ Association of America moved its yearly tournament from its traditional August window to late spring, making it a delightful way station between the portentously dignified Masters and the gut-churning grind of the U.S. Open. The PGA Championship is widely understood to be the least prestigious of golf’s four annual majors, but often it turns out to be the most fun. And although the PGA is played at a revolving circuit of courses, it strangely tends to yield a big, bold name in the winner’s circle. Your last six champions? Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Brooks Koepka (again), Collin Morikawa, Phil Mickelson, and Justin Thomas (again). I’d say that is pretty stout.

This year’s tournament takes place on the East Course of Oak Hill Country Club outside of Rochester, New York. A Donald Ross design, the track is tough and venerable and has seen its fair share of history: Jack Nicklaus won the 1980 PGA Championship here, and Lee Trevino won the U.S. Open at Oak Hill in 1968, besting Nicklaus by four strokes. This year, the East Course will play as a par 70 at a seemingly manageable 7,394 yards. Big hitters may be able to outmuscle Oak Hill, but diabolically thick and penal rough will heighten the risk-vs.-reward proposition. Brisk temperatures and rain may be in the Western New York forecast, favoring players who get the best of the weather. Pay special attention to the burly 503-yard, par-4 sixth hole, which will challenge even the longest of hitters, and the finishing three par 4s, which run 458, 502, and 497 yards, respectively. Barring a runaway, this will not be an easy tournament to close.

That’s the setting for the 105th PGA Championship, and it’s a doozy. What else do you need to be looking out for in the season’s second major? Matt Dollinger and I have got answers below. (Our stalwart leader in the clubhouse, Megan Schuster, is away this week—we’ll do our very best to maintain her exacting standards.) —Elizabeth Nelson

Can anyone stop the Jon Rahm Express?

Matt Dollinger: Of all the potential outcomes this week, Jon Rahm running it back and winning a second straight major might be the least surprising and the most intriguing one. After cruising to a four-shot victory at the Masters last month, Rahm enters the week at Oak Hill as the cofavorite along with Scottie Scheffler, whom Rahm already dethroned as the world’s no. 1 golfer this year, and Rahm now has a chance to triple Scheffler’s major count.

It feels downright reckless to pick anyone else to win this week (more on that later). Rahm won four tournaments in the last four months and added four additional top-15 finishes for good measure. He’s coming off two weeks of rest after notching a second-place finish at the Mexico Open, and it’s genuinely mind-blowing to take a step back and look at the run he’s on:

Rahm’s blend of power, accuracy, and confidence will be hard to top this week. Judging by his pretournament presser, he’s also pretty locked in on the challenge ahead.

He’s not getting carried away and talking about winning Grand Slams. He’s focused on winning majors: specifically this one, at a long, challenging golf course that will be tricked out with nightmare-inducing obstacles. “Whoever is setting up the golf course can have a lot of fun,” Rahm said on Tuesday. And if you’re on a heater like the one Rahm is currently riding, it might be pretty fun to play the golf course too.

What can we expect from Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas?

Nelson: It feels like Jordan Spieth has been with us forever, but the three-time major winner is still just 29 years old and is only a PGA Championship away from completing the career Grand Slam. Spieth is an extraordinary player, and I’d bet some decent scrilla that he’ll get that job finished at some point, but with an ailing wrist and coming off a badly missed cut two weeks ago at the Wells Fargo Championship, which was followed by a withdrawal from his hometown AT&T Byron Nelson over the weekend, it sure doesn’t feel like that moment is now. The timing of the injury is a shame, because Spieth’s game has been in fine form so far this year, with five T6-or-better finishes, including a T4 at the Masters last month. Managed expectations are in order, but if he somehow perseveres through the pain into Sunday contention, it will be a can’t-miss story line.

Spieth and defending PGA champion Justin Thomas made for an adorable pair of fellow travelers on Netflix’s indispensable recent tour documentary series, Full Swing, and there is a little more reason for optimism as Thomas prepares to make his defense. Since JT’s triumph in Tulsa last year, his game has been a bit meh. He missed the cut at the Masters and has only three top-20 finishes in 2023. And yet … Thomas is a streaky player who always seems to show up for this tournament. He said during a press conference this week: “I’ve never felt so far and so close at the same time.” Does this not sound like a man ready for action? Don’t sell short on JT.

The LIV corner: How will Phil, Dustin, and Brooks perform?

Dollinger: The Masters was an undeniable victory for LIV Golf. Maybe not in the literal sense, since golf remains an individual sport, and a PGA Tour golfer actually won the tournament. But the defected golfers were plastered all over Augusta’s leaderboard, adding plenty of credence to their ongoing arguments about legitimacy.

It wouldn’t have been that shocking if Dustin Johnson, a two-time major winner and 24-time PGA winner, had performed well at the Masters, given that he had just won the green jacket in 2020. But it wasn’t DJ (who finished T48), LIV’s biggest alpha, in the limelight. It was the other LIV golfers who seized the attention. Sure, Brooks Koepka shot a final-round 75, but he dominated for three days and led by four frickin’ strokes heading into Sunday. Phil Mickelson, 52 years old, shot a miraculous Sunday 65 to finish tied for second, silencing his horde of critics and haters. Patrick Reed closed strong while others faded, finishing tied for fourth. And Joaquin Niemann and Harold Varner III also finished inside the top 30. It wasn’t a full-blown LIV takeover, but it was a bit of a wake-up call that a LIV contract might not equate to majors irrelevance going forward.

There will be 18 LIV players in the PGA field this week, including Mickelson (who won the 2021 PGA on Kiawah Island) and Koepka (a two-time PGA winner himself). And it once again wouldn’t be surprising to see Johnson lurking near the top. Johnson finished T8 when the PGA was last held at Oak Hill in 2013, and he’s coming off an LIV win at Tulsa last week (whatever that means).

It feels like the PGA vs. LIV rivalry will be less contentious this week than at the Masters, where golfers were endlessly hounded by the narrative. It also helps that LIV Golf’s lawsuit against the PGA Tour is losing steam, with all 11 of the original players attached to the case now dropping out. Even Rory McIlroy was unusually tight-lipped this week when asked about LIV’s future. It’s not exactly clear what all this means for either tour, but at a minimum, it looks like we’ll be able to focus on the tournament this week and not the drama raging behind it.

Is everything OK with Rory McIlroy?

Nelson: Rory McIlroy is my favorite golfer, and he remains a contender to win any tournament he enters, but, in light of recent events, it’s fair to conjecture about what kind of headspace the Northern Irish star is in. He was considered a favorite coming into the Mastershis last remaining link in the career Grand Slambut he played poorly and missed the cut. The following week, he surprised everyone by withdrawing from the RBC Heritage, triggering an automatic $3 million fine related to the PGA Tour’s new Byzantine Player Impact Program, which requires top stars who receive bonuses to play in a certain number of events. Two weeks ago, he rinsed balls on three of his last five holes and finished T47 at the Wells Fargo Championship, where he had won three times previously.

McIIroy has served as the conscience of golf—no easy assignment—over the past 12 months as the PGA and LIV tours have drawn battle lines that have divided the sport. He’s been unequivocal about denouncing LIV as both a lesser product and a moral hazard in a manner few of his peers have the guts for, and he deserves a vast amount of credit for taking a principled stand when swallowing his tongue would have been the path of least resistance. But winning golf tournaments is hard enough without moonlighting as an arbiter of sports and geopolitics, and the responsibility of doing both may be a bit too much for even his broad shoulders to carry. Coupled with his drought in major tournaments—it’s been an astounding nine years now—there’s an awful lot of internal and external noise to cope with.

Rory is still the no. 3 ranked player in the world and one of the betting favorites this week, so it feels strange to say that he seems like a bit of an underdog coming in. He’s a member of Oak Hill, and his wife, Erica, is a Rochester native. Maybe the slightly lowered expectations will give him the freedom to play a little looser and have some fun.

Is Joe LaCava taking over Patrick Cantlay’s bag a sign that Tiger Woods is through with tournament golf?

Dollinger: Oof. I like to consider myself an optimist, so let me make the case that Tiger isn’t cooked. As you may have heard, Tiger Woods is arguably the most dominant golfer in history. He’s won 82 times on Tour, he’s racked up 15 majors, and he holds the records for the most consecutive weeks and the most total weeks as the world’s no. 1 golfer. He’s also 47 years old and almost had his leg amputated after a gnarly car accident in 2021. He’s seen some shit. He’s also pretty much seen all of the golf courses. And he pretty much knows every shot and break by memory. So unlike almost every other golfer on Tour, the thing Tiger Woods needs most from his caddie isn’t advice or perspective. It’s physically carrying the bag. Tiger can barely walk a golf course for four rounds. When it comes to which club to pull or what the wind is doing, he’ll probably be just fine. The skills of a veteran caddie like Joe LaCava might be lost on him at this point.

LaCava deserves better than being relegated to caddying a couple of times a year. At 68 years old, he’s on the back nine of his career, and an opportunity to join Patrick Cantlay’s bag (the world’s no. 4 player) is too good to pass up—even if your other gig is part-time caddying for Eldrick Woods.

Tiger underwent “successful” surgery on his ankle last month after withdrawing from the Masters, but it’s unclear when he’ll be back to playing competitive golf. Meanwhile, LaCava is in greater demand than a Sunday Masters badge, having caddied for the likes of Nelly Korda, Fred Couples, Steve Stricker, and Cantlay this year. Tiger isn’t done completely, but he’s done being a staple of the regular tournament scene. LaCava isn’t. Now, we wait to see who follows in the footsteps of Fluff, Stevie, and Joey. Hey, is Charlie big enough to carry a Tour bag yet?

Who are some dark horses to watch?

Nelson: Everybody knows the big names we expect to be in the hunt on Sunday: Scheffler, Rahm, Cantlay, etc. But there are a lot of very fine golfers in the field this week, and it’s quite possible we’ll end up with a winner who is not yet a household name. Sungjae Im, a 25-year-old from South Korea, has been all over leaderboards this year, including four top-10 finishes in his past five starts. He has the game to compete. Tennessee native Hayden Buckley faces massively long odds, but he’s had top-10 finishes in two of his previous four events, and the 27-year-old possesses the kind of elite ball striking that Oak Hill demands. Finally, Joaquin Niemann, the young Chilean, has never finished in the top 10 at a major, but he’s a transcendent talent who will be heading into the week in good form following a T16 finish at the Masters. The 24-year-old has been playing for LIV Golf—it’s particularly frustrating when golf’s emerging stars are poached by Saudi money—but at 90-1 odds, Niemann is too good to ignore as a potential Sunday contender.

Who will win?

Nelson: Cam Young. The 26-year-old American is massively long off the tee, and he has been trending up in majors, finishing T7 at Augusta in April and T3 and second at the PGA Championship and the Open Championship, respectively, in 2022. He’s poised to break through, and if he can keep his short-game struggles to a minimum, I think he’ll hoist the Wanamaker Trophy this week.

Dollinger: Just a gut feeling here, but I’m … also going with Cam Young?! I swear I made this pick before Elizabeth filed hers. (No one will ever believe that.) On the one hand, what are the odds that we both correctly predict the same +3200 golfer to win the PGA Championship? On the other hand, am I going to ignore a sign this obvious? Young notched two top-three finishes in majors last year. His new caddie helped him finish T7 at Augusta. And he’s a New York native, which would make winning at Oak Hill even sweeter. Get your bets in before the sportsbooks see how much we’re aligned.