In the brave new world of the golfing calendar, the merry month of May gets a major championship once more as the PGA Championships moves from “Glory’s Last Shot” in August to, well, the one after the Masters.
This will be second youngest major’s 101st outing but this year’s championship will mark a first-time visit to the legendary municipal course that is Bethpage Black, a 7459-yard brute just outside Manhattan on New York’s Long Island.
As with every major, the storylines are plentiful, with Brooks Koepka aiming to become the first man since Tiger Woods in 2006-07 to win back-to-back PGAs, Jordan Spieth aiming to complete a career Grand Slam and Woods himself back in the big time as he bids to win the opening two majors of the year for the first time since he achieved the feat in 2002, following that epic Masters victory at Augusta National last month.
Which makes the move to May perfect timing for tournament organisers, the PGA of America because the last time Tiger won those back-to-back majors it was the Masters and US Open, which was staged that year at, you guessed it, Bethpage Black.
That was in the days when you had to wait two months from the end of the Masters to the start of the US Open. Now the majors are coming thick and fast and Woods is one a few players confident enough to have not competed since Augusta but the move to May and the tournament being played on the north-east coast brings the likelihood of cool, cloudy and often wet weather relative to normal PGA Tour events while even in June 2009, there was a Monday finish to the US Open due to rainfall. That will suit some, and disadvantage others.
So what will it take to be the last man standing this Sunday evening? Let’s take a look at some potentially key factors to narrow the field.
1 – A Stellar Cast But A Level Playing Field?
This is the only all-professional major championship and the 2019 PGA can boast every one of the top 100 players in the current Official World Golf Rankings. It is an impressive cast, the first time all of the top 100 have managed to get to the start line, fingers crossed, fit and ready for action.
Organisers can boast a field featuring 34 major champions and a dozen men who have reached the top of the world rankings, including the current incumbent Dustin Johnson.
Yet you can immediately discount the 20 PGA Club Professionals who have qualified for their organisation’s blue riband event, they have not had a sniff in the modern era and also, take into consideration Golfworld Magazine’s research in 2018 that the average world ranking of PGA Championship winners in this century was 32.2222. Take out Shaun Micheel’s shock win when ranked 169 in 2003 and the average ranking drops to 25.23 according to the American magazine.
The only winners since 2010 with a higher than average ranking are Keegan Bradley (109th, 2011) and Jimmy Walker (48th, 2016), while Koepka, ranked second at Bellerive last year, was one of four champions in the last 10 editions of the tournament to be in the top five at the time of his victory: Rory McIlroy (3rd in 2012 & 1st in 2014) and Jason Day (5th in 2015).
It is a brave act to cast one’s eye outside the world’s top 25.
2 – Fast Start Required
There is also a direct correlation between holding a strong position in the tournament after 36 holes and subsequently lifting the Wanamaker Trophy after 72.
According to PGA Championship official website statistics, 71 per cent of the tournament’s stroke play champions, since it switched from match play in 1958, held a position in the top five on the leaderboard after two rounds while Ireland’s Padraig Harrington is the only eventual champion of those 62 since ’58 to come from outside the top 25 to victory over the final two rounds.
Harrington is also one of only two winners alongside YE Yang in 2009 to have come from as far back as six strokes over the last 36 holes, though Yang was T9 after two rounds compared to the Irishman’s T26.
Four halfway leaders or co-leaders since 2010 and 11 since 2000 have gone on to win the PGA, most recently Jimmy Walker at Baltusrol in 2016 while defending champion Koepka was third after round two, two shots off the lead.
To be in the hunt at the PGA, you need to be quick out of the blocks so worth a look at the leaderboard for a punt at the halfway stage.
3 – Is There Bethpage Black form?
While there is not the familiarity of an annual visit to Augusta National for the Masters, Bethpage Black will not be a stranger to the majority of elite golfers. In this week’s field. The US Open has twice visited the Big Apple course, in 2002 and 2009 and more recent form guides are available from the 2012 and 2016 Barclays tournaments in the FedEx Cup play-offs, now known as The Northern Trust.
There are two current world top 30 players to have won one of those four events at Bethpage, Woods in 2002, and, most recently, Patrick Reed in 2016. Lucas Glover won the rain-hit 2009 US Open and Nick Watney the 2012 Barclays.
Sergio Garcia is the standout non-winner with three top-five finishes in his three appearances at the course.
This Week’s World Top 30 With A Top 10 At Bethpage
1 Dustin Johnson – T3 @ 2012 Barclays
4 Rory McIlroy – T10 @ 2009 US Open
5 Justin Thomas – T10 @ 2016 Barclays
6 Tiger Woods – Won @ 2002 US Open, T2 @ 2009 US Open
10 Rickie Fowler – T7 @ 2016 Barclays
15 Jason Day – T4 @ 2016 Barclays
18 Bubba Watson – T10 @ 2012 Barclays
19 Patrick Reed – Won @ 2016 Barclays
21 Louis Oosthuizen – T5 @ 2012 Barclays
23 Phil Mickelson – 2nd @ 2002 US Open, T2 @ 2009 US Open
24 Gary Woodland – T4 @ 2016 Barclays
26 Sergio Garcia – 4th @ 2002 US Open, T10 @ 2009 US Open, T3 @ 2012 Barclays
27 Adam Scott – T4 @ 2016 Barclays
4 – Does your game fit Bethpage Black?
If, from the comfort of your armchair, you haven’t been shown that foreboding sign that awaits golfers entering the first tee by the end of the week, you must have been watching the wrong TV channel.
“WARNING: The Black Course Is An Extremely Difficult Which We Recommend Only For Highly Skilled Golfers.”
As it suggests, Bethpage’s Black, the most difficult of the four public courses at this remarkable municipal amenity is not for the faint-hearted. Opened in 1936 having been designed by AW Tillinghast on rugged, rolling landscape, it is a tough walk for spectators and a real grind for golfers.
The Black requires length off the tee, accuracy from tee to green and patient, discipline throughout.
There is a premium on finding its narrow fairway as eight acres of sand in the form of huge bunkers and plenty of rough lie in wait for errant shots, while attempts at miracle rescue shots can come with a heavy price. Best to suck it up, take your punishment and move quickly on.
And with deep greenside bunkers, those great PGA Tour sand save and scrambling stats may not be a factor.
Power, precision, control are the watchwords here, even if, as Rory McIlroy expects, the set-up this week will be more benign than those US Opens of the previous decade. Back then it was the hardest course on the PGA Tour in those respective years. Watney at The Barclays in 2012 was the lowest winning score with a 274, 10 under as it played to a par-71. Reed got to 275. The US Opens were played to par-70, Woods winning at 277, Glover at 276.
World Top 30 Players in Top-10 PGA Tour Stats Rankings
Strokes Gained: Off The Tee
1 McIlroy – average +1.326
2 Rahm – +1.00
3 Bubba Watson +.949
4 Tommy Fleetwood +.912
5 Jason Day – +.805
6 Bryson DeChambeau – +.743
7 Gary Woodland – +.742
11 Johnson +.689
15 Casey +.617
21 Cantlay +.540
Strokes Gained: Tee To Green
1 McIlroy – 2.483
2 Thomas – 1.936
3 Matsuyama – 1.816
4 Fleetwood – 1.706
7 Johnson – 1.511
8 Woods – 1.479
9 Casey – 1.470
10 Cantlay – 1.449
11 Kuchar – 1.332
12 Woodland – 1.323
5 – The Tiger Factor…
The dam has broken, the pressure to win another major has disappeared and 2019 Masters champion Tiger Woods returns to Bethpage in a very happy space as he bids for major title number 16 on a course where he already has achieved US Open success. That could be intimidating in itself for the rest of the field
So here’s our shortlist of PGA box-tickers…
He’s on a roll and back at a course where he has previously excelled but, after a month away from competition since the Masters victory, a potentially soggy and cool mid-May for a guy with a fused spine is unknown territory for Tiger.
Showed some spark on the weekend at Augusta National to secure a Masters runner-up finish behind Woods but that strong finish was missing a week later when the world number one shot a final-round 77 at the RBC Heritage and lost a one-shot lead. As usual, DJ ticks all the boxes on a course where he finished tied for third at The Barclays in 2012 and T18 six years later, and he will relish a long, damp course.
Defending champion and back-to-back US Open winner aiming for a similar feat to emulate Tiger in this championship in 2006-07, Koepka comes into the PGA having scored 47 under par for his last five PGA Championship starts and won three of the last nine majors, in which he has not finished lower than sixth. He is also in red-hot form, tied for second at the Masters and T4 last Sunday at the Byron Nelson.
Remember Congressional? McIlroy ate up the 2011 US Open on a rain-softened course playing long and Bethpage will play to all his strengths off the tee and into greens. What’s more, the annual pressure he feels at the Masters when in search of the career grand slam will have subsided once more and McIlroy’s strong PGA Tour form has continued in style with victory at The Players and a T8 at Wells Fargo either side of Augusta. It all sets up very nicely for Rory.
The Open champions may have come up short in his Masters bid but his stock rose as a result of his impressive play around Augusta National, adding a T5 there to his win at Bay Hill the month before. Long and accurate, with excellent ballstriking, the Italian has the game to add a second major to his portfolio.
*All odds correct at time of posting