Tour Confidential: Breaking down the PGA Championship, Tiger Woods’ chances and more
Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss a fan-less PGA Championship, Justin Thomas, Tiger Woods and more.
1. The season’s first major begins this week: a PGA Championship like no other, with no fans at Harding Park in San Francisco. Players have become accustomed to playing sans spectators in recent weeks, but this will be the first major contested without the heaving galleries that usually surround every green and tee box, and without roars echoing across the property. Given the muted setting, will players likely feel any less pressure at Harding than they typically feel in the majors?
Sean Zak, senior editor (@sean_zak): Just because it says “PGA Championship” everywhere doesn’t mean it will feel that way Thursday morning. If I had to guess, players will feel less pressure on Thursday morning and down the stretch without the murmuring fans, the crazy applause during big moments and the intensity that comes with twice as many people on property. Now, they could definitely feel more pressure in the absolute silence toward the end, too. I’m excited to find out which is more true.
Josh Sens, senior writer (@JoshSens): Rory said earlier this week that all tournaments pretty much feel the same without fans, and there’s something to that. I doubt this will feel just like the 3M, but there’s no way of replicating that major championship atmosphere. Exactly how it will affect players is another matter. I don’t see how there could be the same level of first-tee jitters. But that’s not necessarily a good thing for everyone. Some guys clearly elevate their games when the throngs are going bonkers and things get most intense.
Dylan Dethier, senior writer (@dylan_dethier): Pressure is a particularly weird thing in the golf world. Let’s take a look at the players who were in 1st, 2nd and 3rd heading to the final round of Sunday’s fan-free WGC-Memphis. Brendon Todd shot 5-over 75, the worst round in the field, while Ben An and Rickie Fowler posted matching 73s to careen down the leaderboard. Common sense would tell me that there’s less pressure on fan-free final rounds, but there’s clearly still something to it.
John Wood, PGA Tour caddie for Matt Kuchar (@Johnwould): I believe so. There’s always an edge a huge crowd provides to the proceedings — and their actions and voices always convey the fact that this is BIG. Even if you’re used to big crowds, this sends a message to your brain and your muscles that this is “importanter” than what you did last week.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer (@alanshipnuck): It’s going to feel a little flat, for sure. But the players are still playing for history and a career-altering trophy so no doubt there will be plenty of nerves down the stretch.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer: I think it depends on the player. For Tiger, trying to get to 16, he’ll feel as much pressure as he ever would. For Dustin Johnson, it won’t make a difference. Impossible to generalize, except to say, come Sunday afternoon, it will be weird, but it’s way better than nothing. I think golf’s various organizing bodies, starting with the PGA Tour and the PGA of America, but going way beyond those two groups, have done an exemplary job of bringing elite golf back, for the benefit of many parties, in a responsible way. Not playing before live fans was a necessary first step.
2. Justin Thomas won the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational by three shots. He’s now the new world No. 1, but is he the prohibitive PGA favorite. If not, who is the frontrunner?
Zak: Undoubtedly so. And an absolute CRIME that Dylan Dethier kept him OFF his “Top 5 Current Players” just a few weeks ago. Thirteen wins this young is just absurd.
Dethier: This feels like a cheap shot. The week after said Top 5 list was released, Thomas demonstrated he still had a ways to go when he couldn’t hold the lead at the Workday, followed by a statement win by my world No. 2 Jon Rahm, who Sean left off his list, if we’re keeping receipts. Good to see both young men find their winning touch. Anyway, this week feels like it’ll favor a simple group: guys who hit it far and straight. Thomas is good at that. Koepka is, too. DeChambeau hits it farther, but not quite as straight. Toss in Rahm and Rory, and you’ve got yourself a fivesome of favorites, with Thomas out in front ever so slightly.
Shipnuck: Now, now, you two! Yes, Thomas is the favorite, but I don’t know about prohibitive. The Memphis heat takes a toll and the grind of winning takes a really big toll, so let’s see how much Thomas has in the tank.
Bamberger: I like Henrik Stenson’s chances better. He’s in the field, right? It’s a moving target. But he’s tanned, rested, ready and under the radar.
Sens: Definitely among the favorites. But the “prohibitive” one? I don’t think Vegas will see it that way, what with Brooks rounding into form and Rahm and Rory in the field, to name a few others who will likely get close to equal oddsmaker billing.
Wood: I don’t think there can be a prohibitive favorite anymore, not in this day and age when the field of elite players seems so deep. We are not in the Tiger Woods heyday, where he was always the prohibitive favorite. Brooks is playing well again, as is Rahm, Thomas, Webb Simpson, a resurgent Mickelson — and of course, there is always Tiger.
3. Thomas had Jim “Bones” Mackay on the bag this week and will have him next week. Mackay, in a delightful coincidence, also walked side by side with his longtime former player, Phil Mickelson, during Sunday’s final round. How much do you suppose did/will Mackay help Thomas?
Zak: I think he helps against a drop-off. Any shot that Thomas can think of, Bones has seen. You can probably say the same for Thomas’ normal caddie, so it’s probably important JT doesn’t bring in some Joe Caddie from the street to loop for him. It’s good to bring on someone who is just as good, if not better.
Sens: And let’s not forget that Bones was on the bag for Matthew Fitzergerald at the Memorial for Fitzpatrick’s third-place finish. Clearly, he’s giving off good juju.
Wood: No disrespect whatsoever to Bones — he’s one of the best ever. But it’s still 99% the horse, 1% the jockey. And Justin’s main guy, Jimmy Johnson, is absolutely no slouch. He’s got a pretty damn good resume as well. My thoughts are more with him getting healthy than anything else.
Dethier: This feels particularly weird to type right after John Wood, who’s among the best pro loopers on the circuit, but I can’t shake the feeling that some players benefit from a change in bagmen now and again. Maybe having a different perspective (and still an expert perspective) allowed Thomas the freedom he needed to bring it home on Sunday. Caddying is a science, but it’s also a dark art, and there’s hardly anyone better at its mastery than Bones, who’s finally on the bag for a world No. 1.
Shipnuck: I agree with Dylan, especially when the new caddie is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I remember Adam Scott talking about not wanting to let Stevie down when they first joined forces — I’m sure JT felt something a little similar with Bones.
Bamberger: My guess is that Bones picked right up where Jimmy left off. Thomas likes to talk about the shot; Bones has a long history of that sort of thing. Thomas likes to hit driver aggressively, on aggressive lines; Bones knows that routine. Thomas isn’t going to get nervous down the stretch; he’s not a rookie who needs a caddie to hold his hand. Jimmy is a pro; Bones is a pro. The pro caddie’s job is to let the player do his job. What Justin Thomas could not afford was to be worried about his caddie in the intense heat. Thomas didn’t have to worry about Bones. This week, Justin Thomas is trying to win a PGA Championship. He knows how to do that. Bones knows how to help.
4. Majors mean the return of Tiger Woods, who has played just once since the restart, at the Memorial two weeks ago. Does Woods, who finished T-40 at Jack’s place, have enough 2020 reps under his belt to make a run at major title No. 16 this week?
Zak: No. In seven days, we’ll reconvene here, and there will have been some fog, a morning tee time and afternoon tee time (and maybe more of each) and plenty of discussion about Tiger’s back handling the temperatures in San Francisco. What is the threshold for a loose back, 65 degrees? Seventy degrees? Sixty-three? We’ll never know. We’ve just seen him play tough courses in less-than-perfect conditions lately, and we’re often left asking about the weather more than Woods’ game.
Sens: If these past few weeks have been any indication out here in my neck of the woods, we’re looking at some cool, foggy mornings. So Tiger doesn’t haven’t that going for him, which isn’t nice. Throw in the fact that the rough is up and the fairways are tight, and it’s hard to be too bullish on him. Which, since I’ve said it, means he’ll probably win by five.
Wood: Odds say no. But when has it ever done anyone one bit of good to count Tiger out? As the old St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Joaquin Andujar once said: “There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is, ‘You never know.’”
Dethier: He has enough reps to contend, yes. I think he’ll find a way to be in the conversation. I’d be surprised if he won. I’m not adding to the conversation here, but it’s hard to feel any differently about Woods — except to point out how we all felt when he birdied two of the first three holes at Memorial. That Tiger? He grabs our attention and kicks logic and rational expectation to the curb.
Shipnuck: Tiger has been destroying our notion of what’s possible for a quarter-century now. If any golfer can off the couch and contend at a major it’s clearly him. But the course setup and cool weather are clearly less than ideal.
5. Brooks Koepka finished tied for second in Memphis — and had held the lead late on Sunday — against a loaded field, as he preps to win his third straight PGA Championship. His strong performance at the WGC follows a relatively lackluster stretch, along with whispers of continuing left knee troubles. How much did this week change your PGA outlook for Koepka?
Zak: If you can contend against 78 of the best players in the world, you can do it against 150. So I like his chances much more than a week ago. Look to that final round today for evidence. Three birdies and 12 pars through 15 holes is what we’ve seen him do to win majors. Par the field to death at Bethpage and Shinnecock. It’s a major-winning ability he has that few seem to possess.
Sens: Not surprising at all to see Koepka rounding into form just in time for Harding Park. He’s clearly got another gear for the big ones, and I suspect the hiccup down the stretch this week will only get him more fired up for next week. He will be in the mix late Sunday. Book it.
Wood: It didn’t change my outlook. He’s had these lulls before, but as soon as he shows up to one of those four, he gets excited, interested and determined. Knowing the course, it should suit him very well.
Dethier: You lot are better oracles than me, because while I’d hardly given up on Koepka, I was certainly concerned that his health wasn’t in full form and that his game wouldn’t measure up until his body did. This week makes me far, far more optimistic about Koepka’s chances. We’re looking at a very legitimate chance at a three-peat.
Shipnuck: The big question is his knee — he sounded really discouraged earlier this week, and it’s affecting not only his ability to prepare, but also swing the club. Making six on two of the last three holes whilst in a dogfight for a WGC, was that fatigue, compromised technique, diminished confidence — or just golf? That’s a lot of questions swirling around a player who was once a golfing Terminator.
Bamberger: I like Stenson’s chances better. He’s in the field, right?
6. During the European Tour’s Hero Open on Sunday, Joel Sjöholm incredibly needed a boat to hit his third shot on a par-5. What’s the most bizarre spot from which you’ve seen a shot played?
Zak: Unfortunately I had to play a shot from SHORT of the Swilcan Burn in my only trip to St. Andrews’ Old Course. Yes, while the sun set over the town and just before 9 p.m., in front of an audience of two dozen, I topped my tee shot short of the widest fairway in the world. Somehow smiled for the photo on the bridge.
Sens: I guess it’s not so bizarre anymore since it has now happened so often, but the first time I saw clips of John Daly whacking driver off a tee propped in some drunken bar-goer’s mouth, I thought, hmm, that’s a little odd. And extremely unwise.
Dethier: Sergio hacking from that tree comes to mind. Kevin Na in the middle of the woods en route to 15. Phil, hacking away right-handed from the wrong side of the O.B. fence. But I’d have to say I’ve never seen a stranger lie than Shooter McGavin playing it off, to quote him, “Frankenstein’s fat foot.” I’m confident that a closer reading of the rule book would have earned him free relief.
Shipnuck: I once had to play a shot from under the bridge on the 18th hole at Pine Valley. It’s a long, sad story.
Bamberger: Guy made a par from the clubhouse roof there, so that’s pretty good. You have to like a club where the clubhouse is in play.