Tour Confidential: Who is most ready to win the PGA Championship?

rory mcilroy

Rory McIlroy has won at TPC Harding Park in his career, but can he do it again during the PGA Championship?

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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 major potential, the LPGA’s return, Ernie Els’ insights into the distance debate, and more.

Things begin to get interesting in pro golf over the next few weeks. A World Golf Championship comes first, this week in Memphis. Then follows the PGA Championship in two weeks, and the Tour playoffs and the U.S. Open after that. After a month and a half of play since golf’s return, who is best positioned to make a run?

Sean Zak, senior editor (@sean_zak): It feels like we’ve seen brilliance and B.S. from each of the game’s best players. Justin Thomas blew a big lead late. Jon Rahm didn’t get it going until the Memorial. Rory seems stuck in neutral. Bryson was cruising along until making a 10. Koepka is hampered by a bum knee and his buddy DJ is working through a dinged up back. So … I look elsewhere! And Xander Schauffele is the man. He has played tough golf courses as well as anyone not named Koepka the last few years, and he’s been very solid since he returned. Get your betting slips in, folks! 

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: I’d say Rory. He likes summer golf. He’s due. He’s playing well, at times. He’s won PGA Championships twice before. Tanned, rested, ready — Rory. 

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer (@alanshipnuck): And don’t forget that Rory won the Match Play at Harding Park! He’s been a forgotten man lately — I, too, think that changes as we get to the meat of the season.

Josh Sens, senior writer (@JoshSens): If anything, these past few weeks have reminded us how futile it is to predict in this game. But I’ll bite … Tony Finau! So close these last two starts, and now with his Tour-leading 30th Top 10 in last few years. New caddie on his bag, and a swing tweak to add even more distance. If this guy isn’t due, I don’t know who is.

John Wood, Tour caddie: Collin Morikawa. He’s just ALWAYS there. He’s as brilliant a ballstriker as there is in the game today, seems unflappable, and played his collegiate golf across the bay from Harding Park. I know someone this good can’t fly under the radar, but outside of those big names mentioned above, he’s as good a bet as any.  

Tony Finau, who split with his longtime caddie and now has his swing coach, Boyd Summerhays, on the bag, had an excellent week at the 3M, finishing T3, three shots behind winner Michael Thompson. But the week also represented another missed opportunity for Finau, who now has 30 top-10 finishes since his first and only Tour win, in 2016. Do you suspect his Sunday struggles are more physical or mental?

Zak: There is nothing — NOTHING! — wrong with the physical version of Tony Finau. So I’d guess there’s something mentally he needs to check off before getting it done. I think he tipped that off by changing up his caddie situation. He knows he’s damn good and now he’s going to make moves on it. I suspect he gets it done very soon. 

Bamberger: It must be really hard for Tony to make a caddie change. They ate so many meals together, reviewed so many shots together, came up on Tour together. That he could make the move shows a mentality we have not seen on Sundays. I’d have to think the struggles are more mental than physical. Tiger would say the same. I think his next five years will be better than his last five. That’s asking a lot. 

Sens: The caddie change tells you everything you need to know about where Finau himself thinks he needs a boost. That’s a psychological change, not a physical one. He’s looking to sharpen the edges around the great physical arsenal he already has.

Shipnuck: You have to remember that Finau came from nothing, and that he has an entire Brady Bunch of kids. It’s easy to imagine that his first few years on Tour he was happy to finish in the top 10, collect a big check, secure his job and take care of his family. Now he needs to find an entirely different approach. That’s not easy for such a gentle giant. 

Wood: It’s timing. Once he crosses the line in a big one, he’ll tell himself, “That wasn’t that hard.” I think he may be trying to do too much to answer all the doubters on Sunday, rather than just being Tony Finau. I know he lacks nothing to win more. I saw him up close at the Ryder Cup in France, as well as really up close at the President’s Cup in Melbourne. There aren’t many tougher places to play than a team event on the road, and he had the goods there. Once he realizes he just has to be who he is and not something more, he’ll start winning. A lot.

Another sport — baseball — has returned, like golf, with no fans. But you wouldn’t know it from watching some of the coverage: With an assist from augmented reality, Fox has incorporated digital spectators and canned crowd noise into its coverage. Would golf coverage benefit from fake fans?

Zak: For some reason, I hadn’t pondered this until now. I’m going to say no, because touchdowns are touchdowns and three-pointers are three-pointers. But can someone on the tech side decipher the importance of a 71st hole par putt from eight feet? I’m going to guess no, and hope that golf just stays away from it.

Bamberger: I hope not. Those major-league games would feel less empty at minor-league parks. Nobody is being fooled. At least golf has enough sense not to try to fool us.

Sens: As someone who watches a good deal of sports with the volume off, I can’t say I’ve missed the spectators much at all this year. Definitely not to the point where I feel the need to hear piped in cries of “You da man” during the closing stretches on a Sunday.

Shipnuck: I definitely missed the crowd at Memorial — can you imagine the bedlam that would have ensued on that great 18th hole amphitheater with the back-to-back bombs by Justin Thomas and Collin Morikawa? It was hard not to feel a little cheated watching at home. But overall, I’ve enjoyed the pure, uncluttered telecasts.

Wood: God. No. Please. You won’t find a bigger baseball fan than me, and I cannot stand the fake crowd noise and the cardboard cutouts. It’s contrived and phony. I would much rather be able to really hear the game, cursing and all.

Rory McIlroy was surrounded by fans during his last trip to TPC Harding Park, but he won’t be this time around.

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While the PGA Tour resumed play last month, the LPGA Tour kicks off its restart at the Drive On Championship on Friday. What do you think the LPGA has learned from the PGA Tour’s resumption and what storyline should we be tracking as the women return?

Zak: The LPGA has learned (best it can) how to move about from tournament to tournament. Mike Whan told a small group of media how valuable it was to him and his staff that they could call up PGA Tour execs for insight into how to make the roaming circus happen. I anticipate they nail it as well as the Tour has. That being said, Whan said straight up, “If we can’t play pro-ams, the LPGA is going to have some challenges.” I know it has little to do with who wins and loses, but that’s a storyline worth tracking. That tour is better off when its members play with fans to derive sponsorship value. Can it do it safely?

Bamberger: That’s a good point, Sean. The mechanics of moving and staying healthy are so important — the single-most important thing, really. The LPGA — along with this website and Golf Channel and various other outlets — have to do a better job of telling the stories of the players on the women’s tour. If we don’t know the players, we don’t care about what they do. Wisely or not, we seem to care a great deal about Bryson DeChambeau and his exploits, on parking lots, near course fences, in the gym, on the tee, driver in hand. But the Korda sisters make much better swings.

Sens: I don’t know that this will leap out as a storyline, but it’s certainly a selling point for the LPGA: with all the issues surrounding runaway distance the PGA Tour, the way it has made the game more one-dimensional, the way it has made great courses increasingly obsolete, the LPGA offers a refreshing antidote. You get to watch players hit a wider variety of shots on courses that are playing more closely to the way they were designed to play. A traditionalist’s delight.

Shipnuck: The key takeaway is how much vigilance is needed, from the players as well as their inner circle. The folks on Tour were a bit cavalier at the outset of the restart, which manifested in all the forced withdrawals at Hartford. Recognizing their season was in jeopardy, the players and other stakeholders quickly found religion. The LPGA has no margin for error, so total buy-in is required from the outset. As for storylines, the Bryson-ification of the PGA Tour has only made more plain the joys of watching LPGA players take apart courses with finesse, precision and strategy, not caveman power.

Wood: They are in for a difficult time I’m afraid. They are coming back while the PGA Tour is about to start playing big events. World events and playoffs and majors galore, and other sports, namely basketball and baseball, are coming back as well. I agree that they’ll need to play pro-ams to engage more with fans. They’re great for the PGA Tour as well, but not as important as they are for the LPGA.

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and Jack Nicklaus

Jack Nicklaus: USGA and R&A ‘can’t keep burying their heads’ on distance

By: Nick Piastowski

Ernie Els jumped into the distance debate this week, saying that neither equipment nor the length of courses need amending. “We need a serious premium on accuracy,” Els said. “Make the Tour rough knee high, fairways fast and firm, which is fair for all players.” Agree?

Zak: I can sense a slight exaggeration from Ernie, but his point remains. Knee-high rough is not the answer, nor is calf-high rough. At least not week-in and week-out. I had multiple Tour caddies explain the differences between 3M and Memorial setups this week. While they all tended to believe it was a bit extreme, the firmness of the fairways and greens coupled with longer rough and some wind were the exact recipe for testing the world’s best. Those are all more reasonable solutions than just letting the grass grow and grow and grow. 

Bamberger: Only with the F&F part. The game lacks balance now. There’s too much emphasis on the tee shot. It’s certainly not the players fault. But foot-high rough doesn’t make golf more interesting, it makes it less interesting. We want to see all manner of shots, including the recovery shot. Tiger became Tiger on the basis of his recovery game, his iron play, his driving game, his chipping game. His everything. 

Sens: I agree to a point. Problem is, there comes a point where defending through course conditions alone leads to flat-out goofy setups, and then you’re not making it more fair for anyone. At that point is where I start to think: rolling back the ball is the better long-term solution.

Wood: Of course, he’s correct. I would love to see firm fairways, hard greens, deep rough every single week. But It’s not going to happen. There’s no way for tournaments to collude to make course setups more difficult, with more emphasis on hitting fairways. And here’s why:  the tournaments are in competition with each other to attract players. When a player is choosing a schedule, they’re just like anyone who plays golf: a major factor in deciding where they play is choosing someplace they enjoy. They know a handful of times a year, namely U.S. Opens, the Masters, they’re going to have to play courses with less room for error. But week-in, week-out, they won’t do it. And to be honest with you, I don’t think the networks would enjoy it either. Long drives sell. The ratings just simply wouldn’t be as good if the guys who can hit it 350 are hitting 4-irons off every tee.  

Shipnuck: John’s point is well-taken, and amplify’s Michael’s: the setup Ernie is advocating sounds dreadfully boring. Who wants to watch the best players chipping out sideways? It’s fun at a few select majors, but every week would be a snooze. And the problem with resting everything on firm/fast setups is that it’s an outdoor game, and rain showers are common in the spring and summer. To test players with the current benign Tour setups we need courses that are 9,000-10,000 yards, but that requires an obscene amount of land, water and maintenance hours. The only real solution is obvious: throttle back the equipment. But Ernie and many others are paid to subvert that point.

During the first round of the 3M Open, Sangmoon Bae hit his drive on the par-5 18th in the water, hit his approach into the water, then holed out from 250 yards. What’s the most ghastly-to-great hole you’ve ever witnessed?

Zak: Happy Gilmore at the Tour Championship? Wasn’t there myself but it certainly comes to mind. Fred Couples on the bank at Augusta? Tiger Woods left of 16 green? Apologies for taking the obvious answers. 

Bamberger: Interesting question, because it so often goes the other way. I’d have to say that five-footer JVD made to get himself into the Open playoff at Carnoustie in 1999. After the trauma he endured to get there, that putt was amazing. But Spieth at Royal Birkdale, from the driving range after that crazy slice, has to be up there, too.

Sens: Great real world example, Michael. But as with so many things in life, the finest illustration comes from Bugs Bunny.

Wood: Bill Haas, 18th hole, Tour Championship playoff vs Hunter Mahan. Sigh. Damn you Bill. And of course Spieth at the 13th at Birkdale, vs. Kuchar. Damn you, Jordan. (Laughing, of course)

Shipnuck: We feel your pain, Woody. One time at Cruden Bay I was playing with my friend Matt Ginella and on a drivable par-4 he blew his tee shot off the planet, declared it lost, reteed … and lipped-out the next one. Routine tap-in par.

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