By the time the first tee shot it struck Thursday at TPC Harding Park, it will have been 382 days since Shane Lowry won the 2019 British Open, our last glimpse of major championship golf.
The coronavirus pandemic shook up the 2020 major calendar. The Masters have been moved to November; the U.S. Open at Winged Foot pushed from June to September. The 2020 British Open was canceled altogether, making the 2020 PGA Championship the first major test in a year unlike any other.
Brooks Kopeka arrives looking to make history by becoming the first player to win three straight PGA Championships since Walter Hagen won four straight from 1924-27. Making history is a test unto itself, but one Koepka proved he wouldn’t back down from last summer when he narrowly fell short of winning his third straight U.S. Open, finishing three shots behind Gary Woodland at Pebble Beach.
Newly crowned world No. 1 Justin Thomas, fresh off a victory at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, will try to join Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy as the only players to win a WGC and PGA Championship in back-to-back weeks.
As for Woods, he’ll tee it up for just the second since the PGA Tour came out of quarantine. The four-time PGA winner finished in a tie for 40th at the Memorial Tournament. He missed the cut last year at the 2019 PGA Championship a year after coming in second behind Koepka at Bellerive Country Club.
Major championship golf finally has returned, and the world’s best are ready to duel at the revamped Harding Park. But who has the best chance to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy come Sunday? The last 32 majors have been won by players ranked in the top 50 in the world, and it’s more likely than not we will see No. 33 come Sunday.
Justin Thomas: Despite not having his best stuff (his words), Thomas has been locked in since the restart, He’s posted four top 10s, including a win this past weekend in Memphis. The 2017 PGA Champion leads the Tour in strokes gained: tee to green and has the arsenal to thrive at the major best suited for his skillset. If Thomas, who ranks 131st in driving accuracy can find the short grass, he should contend at TPC Harding Park.
Brooks Koepka: All he has done lately is show up to majors and contend. It’s hard to see him not being in the mix to win his third PGA Championship in a row come Sunday. After leading the 3M in strokes gained: tee to green two weeks ago, Koepka led the field in strokes gained: approach this past week in at TPC Southwind where he finished tied for second behind Thomas. With the ball-striking coming around and Koepka finetuning his putting thanks to the help of Phil Kenyon, it wouldn’t be surprising to see history made this weekend.
Rory McIlroy: McIlroy opened the season with four straight top-five finishes but he has yet to crack a top-10 since the restart. Still, when he’s on, McIlroy is the best player in the game. He hasn’t won a major since he defeated Phil Mickelson at the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla Country Club. Six years is too long for a player of McIlroy’s caliber to go without a major win. If he can rediscover his top-notch iron game, McIlroy will have a chance at major No. 5 this week. McIlroy has good vibes at TPC Harding Park where he won the 2015 WGC-Cadillac Match Play, and never trailed in any match.
Jon Rahm: The Spaniard’s run as world No. 1 lasted all of two weeks before Thomas unseated him. That said, Rahm was built to contend at venues like TPC Harding Park. He hits it a mile and can get scorching hot with his long irons, which he will need in order to contend this week. Rahm’s win at the Memorial Tournament three weeks ago showed he could win under major conditions.
Xander Schauffele: Few players have shown up more at majors than Schauffele over the last three years. And yet, he doesn’t have a win to show for it. Schauffele’s iron game hasn’t been the cleanest since the restart, but his length off the tee and his short game should allow him to contend and possibly pick up his first career major.
Don’t forget about us
Jason Day: Day has battled back issues for years, but Day at 80 percent still is good enough to contend and win almost anywhere. The 2015 PGA Championship winner has recorded three straight top 10s and has the second-best score to par (39-under-par) at the PGA Championship over the last five years. He’s gained on approach in each of his past three tournaments, meaning his game is rounding into form after a dismal start to the season. If he can get his back loosened up in the cool San Francisco weather, he could contend for major No. 2.
Patrick Reed: The 2018 Masters champion’s ball-striking has been erratic of late, but his crisp short game can save him just about anywhere. Reed tends to rise to the top when facing elite fields and if his irons are on then he should be in the mix over the weekend.
Tyrell Hatton: The Englishman’s iron play separates him from most of the field. Hatton ranks third on tour in strokes gained: total and showed during his win at the 2020 Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill that he has the game to thrive in adverse conditions.
If everything goes right
Tiger Woods: The 15-time major champion can never be counted out. But, as we learned at the 2019 U.S. Open, the marine layer can make it hard for him to loosen up his back. Woods only has played four competitive rounds since February, finishing in a tie for 40th at Muirfield Village. But he has good memories at TPC Harding Park. Woods won the WGC-American Express Championship over John Daly in 2005 and went 5-0 at the 2009 Presidents Cup and unleashed a club twirl that will never be forgotten.
Woods missed the cut at last year’s PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, and it’s unclear if his game is in a state to contend at and win a major championship. But he remains one of the best iron players in the game, so if he can keep it in the fairway off the tee, we could be in for a memorable weekend.
Jordan Spieth: It’s been three years since Spieth won the 2017 British Open. Boy wonder has fallen to 62nd in the world rankings as he continues to search for the form that saw him win three majors by age 24. Spieth’s game has been coming along slowly, but he posted top -20 finishes at the Charles Schwab Challenge and the Memorial Tournament. Spieth’s kryptonite has been the blowup hole. He can still rack up birdies and eagles in bunches, but he must avoid the big number to contend at Harding Park. A win for Spieth seems unlikely, but there’s no better way for him to recapture the magic than by completing the career grand slam with a tour de force by the Bay.
Tiger Woods, nine others with best chance to win 2020 PGA Championship originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area