It has been a long time coming but after a year of pandemic, postponements and cancellations, golf’s first Major of the season tees off on Thursday.
TPC Harding Park in San Francisco is the venue for a tournament that used to revel in its tagline of Glory’s Last Shot and there will be a feeling of entering unknown territory as events unravel without spectators for the first time in Majors’ history.
Here are 5 factors to help you pick the Wanamaker Trophy winner in the small hours of next Monday morning.
1. Current Form Counts
Looking back at the pre-tournament form of the last 20 winners from Tiger Woods in 2000 can be a strong pointer to who should be contending at Harding Park next weekend.
All but three of last 20 winners had won previously that season, the exceptions being Jimmy Walker in 2016, Jason Dufner in 2013, and Shaun Micheel in 2003 and even they had managed a top-10 finish as their season’s best going into their winning weeks.
Even more immediate form is telling as well with 16 of the last 20 winners having scored a top-10 finish in one of their four previous starts, 14 of whom had notched a top-five finish with eight of them tasting victory in the weeks prior to their PGA success, the most recent being Jason Day in 2015.
This factor could be even more relevant in 2020 given the suspension of the season due to Covid-19. The value of a win at any time during the year should not be discounted but post-lockdown form since the PGA Tour returned on June 11 is even more pertinent here.
The past eight weeks have delivered winners in Daniel Berger, Webb Simpson, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Collin Morikawa, Jon Rahm, Michael Thompson and Justin Thomas last Sunday at Fedex St Jude.
DeChambeau has also returned three other top-10 finishes while Morikawa also lost a play-off in week one to Berger at the Charles Schwab Challenge, as Thomas did to Morikawa at the Workday Charity Open.
Of the non-winners, Tyrrell Hatton has two top-five finishes.
2. World Rankings Matter
As far as anyone without a degree in advanced maths can make out, the Official World Golf Rankings are supposed to reflect form and that would appear to be borne out by the success rates of higher-ranked players at the PGA Championship in the last two decades.
With 11 of the last 20 winners ranked at number five or higher in the OWGR at the start of the tournament, it’s a stat to note as Justin Thomas leap-frogged Jon Rahm for top spot on Sunday, with Rory McIlroy, Webb Simpson & Dustin Johnson next in line.
Only six previous winners were ranked lower than number 21 (Dufner’s rank when he won in 2013) while only three were real outsiders, ranked outside the top 100. Even then, however, Keegan Bradley (No.108 in 2011), YE Yang (110 in 2009) and Shaun Micheel (169 in 2003) had all gone into their Major-winning week with a strong finish in one of their previous four starts, a 15th, 5th and 10th place respectively.
Rich Beem was ranked 73rd when he won in 2002 yet had won on the PGA Tour in his previous start.
3. It’s A Young Guy’s Tournament
There has been a notable downward shift in the age profile of PGA Championship winners since the turn of the century. Tiger’s 2000 win completed back-to-back PGA titles at the age of 26 but the rest of decade saw eight men in their 30s lift the Wanamaker Trophy while Vijay Singh was 41 when he hoisted the giant bowl in 2004.
Contrast that with the last decade, from 2010-19, when Jason Dufner (2013) and Jimmy Walker (2016) were the outliers, aged 36 and 37 respectively. All the rest were bright young things in their 20s, which is not good news for Rory McIlroy, now aged 31, nor defending champ Brooks Koepka, who turned 30 on May 3.
4. This is the week to break your maiden duck
Don’t be put off by a lack of Major championship pedigree, because the PGA is the tournament you’re most likely to break your duck in, with 10 of the last 20 winners entering the elite club with a victory here and another, Vijay Singh, landing his first at the 1998 PGA.
It does helps to have some PGA previous however. Of our last 20 winners only Bradley and Micheel prevailed at their first attempt while Woods (1999, 2000, 06, 07), Singh (98, 04), McIlroy (12, 14), and Koepka (18, 19) are repeat winners. Of the first-time winners since 2000 not making their PGA debuts, only three had not previously recorded a top-20 finish in the event.
5. Harding Park factor
The San Francisco municipal course may not be the longest major championship course at 7,251 yards from the tips, but this par-70 can bare its teeth. The PGA of America has set the course up with punishing rough, so finding its narrow fairways off the tee is key.
That will bring the best ball-strikers as well as bombers into the equation, although the two Tour events to have been played at Harding Park in recent years – the 2005 WGC-American Express and 2015 WGC-Cadillac Match Play – were won by big-hitting Woods and McIlroy respectively, though they were also that week’s world number one.
If you’re looking for course familiarity, the only players in the field to have played both those WGCs and in the 2009 Presidents Cup are Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson and Adam Scott. Furyk led the PGA Tour in driving accuracy heading into this weekend’s WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational.
Who does that leave us with? Here’s some of the prominent box tickers:
He’s lost his world number one mantle to Rahm during a struggle to find form out of lockdown and is probably the elite golfer to have suffered most by the suspension of the season. Yet the Irishman is a two-time PGA winner, he’s still second-ranked in the world and he has won around Harding Park.
Is this the week McIlroy bounces back?
Newly beefed-up and now driving the ball for miles, he is still dividing opinion with his words and some of his actions but his red-hot form is indisputable. DeChambeau has a win in his last four starts, has climbed into the world’s top 10 and seems on the brink of a maiden major victory.
The Spaniard rose to number one in the world (before Justin Thomas leap-frogged him on Sunday) by taming a brutal Muirfield Village to win the Memorial a few weeks back.
That kind of form bodes extremely well for Rahm’s tilt at a maiden major victory this week.
Now with three victories this season, he had came close to a post-lockdown win at the Workday Charity Open four weeks ago, only to lose to Collin Morikawa, before delivering on Sunday. JT is bubbling nicely for an attempt to regain the Wanamaker Trophy he won at Quail Hollow in 2017. He is the right age, has the form, ranking and strong form but will not relish the Harding Park rough.
The two-time defending champion attempting to go back-to-back-to-back for the first time in the PGA’s history as a stroke-play event, and put in a solid performance last week at Fedex St Jude. A 62 at TPC Southwind last Thursday hinted at a rebound for Koepka as he eventually finished T2 behind Justin Thomas.
Will need to find some consistently good form across all four days though, if he is to make history at Harding Park.
Hard to believe the American only turned pro last summer. His two victories, it could have been three but for a play-off defeat to Daniel Berger straight out of lockdown, have propelled him to number 12 in the world and a Major victory has to be Morikawa’s next objective.
The Englishman is in excellent form thanks to a tie for third at the RBC Heritage and T4 behind DeChambeau at the Rocket Mortgage Classic on July 5. He leads the PGA Tour in Strokes Gained: Total and Hatton is now at a career-high world number 14 with a big US win on his resumé after his triumph at Bay Hill in March.
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