SAN FRANCISCO — In this golf season unlike any other, only one thing is certain: Sunday evening we will crown a major champion for the first time in 13 months. (That’s assuming there is not an epic fog delay necessitating a Monday finish, which would be very 2020.) With such a stacked leaderboard — there are 17 players within four strokes of Dustin Johnson’s lead — there are a dizzying number of juicy storylines at Harding Park. Here is one observer’s ranking of 10 possible outcomes (in ascending order of their likeliness to happen, and based on a presumptive winning score of -10) for what is shaping up to be an epic final round:
Jordan Spieth shoots 54 (!) to win
For those who love Spieth — which is most of the golf world — this has been a rollercoaster week. After a scratchy opening 73, Spieth put in a marathon practice session and the live TV shots of him alone at the range, desperately searching for a secret that has now eluded him for three years, tugged at the heartstrings.
He responded on Friday with a nearly flawless 68 to make the cut on the number and earn a tee time with his buddy Justin Thomas, a fraught pairing given that Spieth once led the PGA Tour victory count 8-1 but has now been surpassed by the current world No 1. Over the first six holes on Saturday, Thomas outplayed Spieth by a whopping eight strokes. Twitter pulsated with a mix of shock and pity as Spieth shot a 76 that left him tied for last.
After the round he headed straight for the range, head down, eyes cloudy, walking slowly and looking utterly grim. But Thomas, a true pal, was optimistic, saying, ”I know he’s going to be fine. I’m not just saying it because he’s one of my best friends. All of us go through little spurts. It’s just for him, this has just been a tough one. I mean, he’s going to be fine. All it takes sometimes is one week and all your confidence gets back. That’s golf.” Here’s hoping.
Tiger Woods shoots 58 to win
Pre-tournament, there was much concern about how Woods would fare in the chilly temperatures at Harding, but given that he’s among the tournament leaders in driving distance (313.8 yards), it seems like his back is fine. Not so his vaunted putting stroke, at least with the new, longer blade Woods put in play this week.
On Friday he made only 49 feet of putts for the entire round. On Saturday, Tiger didn’t hole a putt longer than five feet across the first 13 holes, and when he finally wiggled in a 10-footer for par on 14 he had to laugh ruefully. At that point he was four over on the day and had played himself out of contention.
Woods later said he was spooked by greens that putt slower than they look: “It’s about reading the greens. I just haven’t hit the putts hard enough. My feel and what I’m seeing just aren’t matching up.” But Tiger made a few mid-range putts coming in and Sunday will begin his run-up to Winged Foot; given his lack of reps over the last five months, this PGA was always going to be about building toward the future. Tiger is not going to win this week but expect a solid bounce-back round on Sunday to give him some momentum.
Phil Mickelson shoots 60 to win
Leave it to Lefty to shoot a blah 70 on Saturday and still steal the show, sliding into the CBS booth and turning into golf’s Tony Romo. Mickelson dazzled with wit and between-the-ropes insight and seemed to delight in hazing Nick Faldo, who had to be wondering if he was sparring with his eventual replacement.
Mickelson has always seemed like a natural for TV, and Saturday’s cameo/audition just made it official. But in conversations in the past he has pooh-poohed the notion of doing TV full-time, saying he wants to focus on playing and, once that desire wanes, he’s leery of all the travel and numbing staff meetings a TV job would entail at a time in life when he just wants to chill. But now that Mickelson has become a social-media star, he is learning how addictive the buzz can be when you’re always the center of attention.
Rory McIlroy shoots 61 to win
Based on the last six years, McIlroy is much more likely to shoot 64 for a backdoor top-10. Through 12 holes on Saturday, he was three under for the tournament and patiently working his way up the leaderboard. Alas, wild driving led to four closing bogeys that sent him skidding to 43rd place. Harding Park seemed like the perfect ballpark for McIlroy. On paper, so is Winged Foot. Here’s hoping.
Patrick Cantlay shoots 63 to win
Naturally, it will be bogeyless, as Cantlay hasn’t had a blemish on his scorecard since the 16th hole on Thursday, an incredible stretch of play that augurs well for his play in future major championships.
Scottie Scheffler shoots 68 to win
The amiable 24-year-old rookie by way of Texas threw eight birdies at Harding Park to roar home in 65, looking utterly unfazed by the size of the stage, though he allowed afterward, ”For sure, there’s definitely some nerves.”
Scheffler, tied for second and one back of Johnson, will now have the added pressure of playing in the final pairing alongside DJ, a future Hall of Famer. Asked if he can win this thing, Scheffler chuckled and offered a one-word answer that was less than resounding: “Yeah.”
Collin Morikawa shoots 67 to win
The cool and collected Cal Bear spent four years studying the grasses and weather patterns of Harding Park and applied all that knowledge in the third round, posting a scorching 65 to rise to a tie for fourth, two back. Major championship Sundays are about hitting fairways and greens and Morikawa, in only his second season, has emerged as maybe the most precise player on Tour. The only question is if he can make all the crucial little putts with the wound still fresh from his playoff loss at Colonial.
Morikawa is an impressive kid and he addressed that head-on Saturday evening. “I’ve learned from it,” he said of his missed three-footer in sudden death. “I almost got too comfortable over the putt and thought about the next hole. It was a bad tee shot, bad second shot and good chip and we’re like, okay, we’re through this hole, but we weren’t. The hole is not over. The hole is not over until the last putt drops and we know that [now].”
Bryson DeChambeau shoots 66 to win
The man known for his length took it to an illogical extreme on Saturday, burying a 95-footer for birdie on the final hole that he called the longest made putt of his competitive career. DeChambeau sits in a tie for 8th, which already counts as a moral victory; since he turned pro, in 2016, he hasn’t finished better than 25th in a major championship.
Early in the week, Bryson woofed that he was going to overpower Harding Park but has since found religion: “I said I felt like the rough isn’t that penalizing — well, it is now. It grew and they haven’t cut it, so that’s a major, right? I’ve been a little more tactical in certain areas.”
Case in point was the 16th hole, a do-or-die drivable par-4, where DeChambeau laid-up with a 4-iron and was rewarded with a birdie. Despite all the talk about The Kraken, DeChambeau is a golfer, not a professional long-driver. His ongoing evolution will be put to the ultimate test on Sunday.
Brooks Koepka shoots 67 to win
Big, bad Brooks was once again doing his thing on Saturday, playing the first 12 holes in two under without a bogey and, as always, looking like the man to beat. (Since 2016, Koepka is -76 in the majors and no one else is within 50 shots of him.)
But three straight bogeys beginning on the 13th hole was a reminder that Koepka remains human, and wounded at that; his dinged-up left knee, and the hip that has had to overcompensate for it, required a physio to readjust him three times during play on Friday, and during the third round Koepka had less jock swagger than usual.
But Brooks is Brooks, and he showed typical grit by digging deep for birdies at 16 and 18 to pull within two strokes of his frenemy DJ. Already this week Koepka has intimated his friendship with Johnson was a media creation and set tongues wagging by liking on Instagram a few posts that poked fun at DJ. When asked about having to close the gap of two strokes, Koepka turned the knife a little more: “I mean, I like my chances. When I’ve been in this position before, I’ve capitalized. I don’t know, he’s only won one [major]. I’m playing good. I don’t know, we’ll see.”
No one on this leaderboard has been through the major wars like Koepka, who now is primed to become the first player since Ben Hogan to finish 4th or better in six straight majors. But for Koepka there is only one goal: become the first player since Walter Hagen to win three straight PGA Championships.
Dustin Johnson shoots 69 to win
Here we go again. How much can our hearts take? Johnson’s star-crossed aughts featured some of the most wrenching defeats in recent major championship history. He’s now 36 and still chasing the biggest trophies in the game, a couple more of which are needed to validate the extravagant talent that has delivered him 21 Tour wins and made him one of the most consistent performers of his generation.
The eight birdies Johnson made on Saturday were a vivid illustration of how dangerous he remains; the double bogey on the 9th hole, during which he took four strokes to get down from a greenside bunker, was a reminder of how quickly it can get away from him. (He admitted after the round he has misplaced his trusty yardage book and had to borrow a spare from his caddie/brother Austin.)
Johnson leads the field so far in strokes gained putting but is only 21st off the tee and 30th in approaches to the green. This preeminent ballstriker says he has a game plan for Sunday: “It’s simple: I’ve got to hit a lot of fairways and a lot of greens. If I can do that tomorrow, I’m going to have a good chance coming down the stretch on the back nine.”
But then what? Can DJ finally find a winning formula after so much heartbreak? “I look forward to the challenge,” he says, ”and I will definitely be relying on a lot of that experience that I have.” For better or for worse.