Harding Park is an unlikely setting for a revolution. A gently rolling municipal golf course on the west side of San Francisco, fairways lined with gorgeous Cypress trees, kissed by the breeze from the nearby Pacific ocean. It is an idyllic place to play golf, a fitting venue for the first major championship of 2020. But is this the site of golf’s last stand?
Those blessed with a memory stretching all the way back to a couple of weeks ago will remember that professional golf was being torn apart by Godzilla in a Ben Hogan cap, or to give him his Sunday afternoon name, Bryson DeChambeau. Thick of girth, and thin on respect for the norms and traditions of the game, the (let’s face it) fairly obnoxious American reemerged from the COVID-19 lockdown having added 40lbs to his frame and 40 yards off the tee.
His game was already world-class but now it was super-sized, giving him the power and strength to reduce a PGA Tour track to a pitch-and-putt.
DeChambeau marked professional golf’s return with three top-10s on golf courses that historically had never particularly suited big hitters. He followed that with a win in Detroit on a layout that did. The narrative was set – professional golf at the elite level had changed for good. The future was already written – when Bryson shows up he wins. Major championship trophy engravers, start your engines.
Fortunately, or unfortunately for anyone in the prediction industry, golf is elusive, its history littered with “game changers” who turned out to be good PGA Tour players who didn’t change very much beyond the numbers in their bank account. Bobby Clampett, anybody?
Six weeks after the muscled-up American tore the polo shirt off his chest to reveal the superhero costume below, golf arrives this week at Harding Park with a collective case of whiplash. A missed cut and a T30 – DeChambeau’s results in his two appearances since Detroit – will do that. The game-changer has gone from a “near certainty” for this week’s PGA Championship to “possibility”; from Superman to the Man Who Fell to Earth.
There is no embarrassment in that, of course, and DeChambeau, who wears his confidence like a peacock feathered hat at Royal Ascot, will step on to the first tee on Thursday thinking he will win. Maybe he will. Harding Park is a tight (ish) and tree-lined layout, measuring just 7,200 yards off the tips. It can’t be classed as a “bombers” course in a traditional sense, like say Bethpage Black, where Brooks Koepka won the PGA Championship last year, but recent tournament play on the course suggests it possesses an alchemy that favours long hitters.
Tiger Woods won a WGC here in 2005, beating John Daly in a play-off. Rory McIlroy won the 2015 World Matchplay at Harding, defeating Gary Woodland in the final.DeChambeau will look at that lineage and believe his first major championship victory would be the logical next step. All he needs this week is to ally a great short game week to his established length advantage.
His only problem is the rest of the field. By virtue of golf course set-up, which is traditionally more akin to a regular PGA Tour event, the PGA Championship has evolved into the most democratic of the four majors. Not everybody can win, but a few surprising figures have. Rich Beem, Keegan Bradley, Jimmy Walker and Jason Dufner, are or at least were great PGA Tour players but they could never be described as “elite”. Yet they can all count a PGA Championship as their sole major victory.
There are plenty in the field this week of similar ilk – Patrick Cantlay, Daniel Berger, Joel Dahmen, Xander Schauffele, Kevin Kisner, Brendan Todd. Any one of those six could step forward and have the week of their life. The same goes for several of the European contingent, the likes of Tyrrel Hatton and Tommy Fleetwood, Ian Poulter and Matt Fitzpatrick.
All four are worth a look, especially Fitzpatrick who has always been a magnificent putter but has added some length and speed to his game. His recent form suggests a man on the verge of a break-out moment.
But for all of the talent and as-yet-unfulfilled ambition listed above, it is hard to ignore Harding Park’s eye for the truly elite player. Recent history suggests only the very best prevail in this setting, an observation that reduces our list of potential winners to a select few. DeChambeau is certainly one of them but we can forget all the nonsense about him ripping up the history books with bare hands.
He has a chance but put it no stronger than that. If he wins he will have to beat Tiger Woods, McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm and his nemesis, Brooks Koepka. Do you really think he can do that? I don’t.