I’ve been away for a while but I return to my corner just in time for this week’s PGA Championship. The 102nd edition of the event.
The world’s best golfers head to TPC Harding Park in San Francisco for the season’s first, and only, major championship.
A full field of 156 golfers will be lined up to peg it on this municipal layout. It will also be a flash back to year’s past with the top 70 and ties being allowed through the 36-hole cut. That adds a few percentage points to everyone’s make-the-cut equity when you compare it to a week-to-week non-major event.
TPC Harding Park will be the host venue this year. It’s located just a half mile from the Pacific Ocean.
The course was laid out by Willie Watson and Sam Whiting, opened for play in 1925, and was renovated in 2003 ahead of the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship at Harding Park. The course also re-grassed the greens in 2014 just ahead of the 2015 WGC-Match Play.
We can look at those past events as a pointer but it should be noted that a lot of changes have been made over the years. For example the 2005 WGC was played just under 7,100 yards but the course can now stretch to nearly 7,400 yards from the tips. It’s official scorecard yardage will be 7,251 yards this week. When it comes to the Match Play event, there were also changes to the hole routing to ensure that all matches played the signature holes.
More changes to the course in the lead-up to the 2020 PGA Championship include extreme narrowing of the fairways. This is very common practice for major championships and we saw a good example of it last year at Pebble Beach. For TPC Harding Park, the number that keep getting cited is 22 yards wide. That won’t be for every hole, obviously, but it goes to show how narrow they’ve made some of these landing areas. For comparison, most TOUR courses have widths in the low or mid-30s.
The PGA Championship is known to suit big hitters so will that change this year as they play a par 70 at less than 7,300 yards? Not likely because there are actually seven par 4s that play over 460 yards here. When you add in the heavy sea-level air (the ball won’t fly as far) then you start to see the importance of distance.
It won’t be a bomb-and-gouge fest, though, because early reports on the rough indicate it is JUICY. They list it at 3.5 inches but it’s very thick and will likely be allowed to grow even taller than that. An occasional missed fairway is fine but if you are spraying it all over the park then it’ll be a short week for you.
Another key feature of the course is the large Cypress Trees that line the fairways. They might make golfers second-guess trying to take an aggressive line because these trees have been known to swallow up golf balls and sometimes they don’t spit them back out.
This all sounds very scary and indicates a brutal test of golf. There is some letup, though. The greens are large (about 7,000 square feet on average) and don’t have a lot of slope in them. A mix of 007 and Tyee Bentgrass was laid down on these greens in 2014 and they played as very pure bent during the 2015 WGC-Match Play event. Five years later, we should expect to see some poa annua creeping in to them. It’s just impossible to keep that completely out of the greens, especially when the fairways and rough have a mix of bent, poa annua, and ryegrass. With large and relatively flat greens we should expect the PGA of America to ramp these puppies up to 12.5+ feet on the stimpmeter.
When all is said and done, we should expect a tough scoring environment, especially if the coastal winds rip through for a day or two this week. With water not heavily in play, there won’t be an extreme amount of blowup holes but there should be a steady stream of bogeys recorded for golfers that can’t find the fairways.
Sifting through some past quotes, let’s try to break down the course to see how it will play.
Lee Westwood: “I don’t think a lot of people are going to play that well on this golf course. It’s really tough. It’s tough to hit fairways. If you can scramble well, you can maybe get a run.”
Louis Oosthuizen: “the rough is up, I think. In a stroke play tournament you might play it a little bit different. If you hit the rough now you still go for the shot, lose one hole. It’s tough around the greens. You need to hit the greens. Luckily they’re quite big, so you can leave yourself massive putts.”
Tiger Woods: “Yeah, do not hit the ball in these trees. You may not be seeing it again. “
Phil Mickelson: “I do have to hit the shots because the fairways are tight, the trees are difficult if you do miss fairways. The course is playing long. It’s playing 7,000 yards, but it’s only par 70, and it’s some of the thickest air we play at sea level, and the ball doesn’t travel very far and the course plays very long.”
J.B. Holmes: ” They have some holes that are longer, and some holes that are shorter. So you can definitely take advantage in some places, but you’ve got to hit it in the fairway. It’s pretty knarly, you can get some pretty bad lies. Long and straight, yes, it’s beneficial. But long and crooked it can get you in trouble. So you’ve got to hit the fairways.”
Overview: Not shown here are a few mentions of the course favoring a right-to-left shot shape. Overall, it sounds like the fairways will be very tough to hit and chipping around the greens won’t be an easy task, either.
Looking at grass types, geography, course attributes, and past performance, here are a few courses/events that I think could prove to be a good pointer this week:
It’s a bit of an educated guess this week with no recent history at TPC Harding Park and certainly no play under this PGA of America setup. We’ve seen golfers talk about a right-to-left shot shape preference here which is why Augusta pops. The location brings courses like Pebble, Riv, and Torrey into play. It’s similar in terms of climate and grasses. Muirfield Village is going to match up in terms of fast bent/poa greens.
Thursday: Morning Clouds with afternoon sun. High of 65 degrees. Winds at 7 to 12 MPH with gusts up to 25 MPH.
Friday: Morning Clouds with afternoon sun. High of 65 degrees. Winds at 7 to 9 MPH with gusts up to 18 MPH.
It may be a bit chilly in the mornings this week but afternoon tee times will be lovely. Playing so close to the coast, we should expect golfers to deal with pesky wind all week.
Golfers to Watch
JT posted an impressive victory last week in Memphis and now he heads into this week as a 10/1 co-favorite alongside Brooks Koepka. With his dad being a PGA professional, this is the major that has always meant the most to Thomas, especially when you compare relative to how other golfers treat the PGA. He missed the Sony Open cut earlier this year after winning the week before but overall he’sbeen one to ride hot streaks, even after a win. The most obvious examples come during his 2017 campaign when he posted back-to-back wins in Hawaii and also went WIN-T6-WIN at the PGA Championship, Northern Trust, and Dell Technologies Championship over a four-week stretch.
The Aussie has been hesitant to return to action since the restart. This will be his first event back. He won the Genesis Invitational earlier this year after seven weeks off but this 144 days since his last competitive shot at THE PLAYERS, about five months. It’s hard to know where the state of his game will be.
I would love to be talking up Tiger as a winning pick this week but it’s hard to get excited when he’s pegged it just once since the restart and finished 40th in that start (Memorial Tournament). If you are looking for a positive spin, then you can highlight his SG Approach numbers from that week where he gained 5.5 strokes with his irons. He’s also a past champ at the course, beating John Daly in a playoff during the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship.
The Spaniard’s stint as World No. 1 was very short but I wouldn’t expect him to go away that easy. He’s always raved about his love for playing in California, comparing the climate to back home in the area of Spain where he grew up. The results have followed along with those quotes. Should be considered one of the top 2 or 3 favorites this week.
He’s still without a top 10 in a major championship. That will surely change soon. Could this be the week as he ties it up back in his home state of California? I like his chances but he also arrives with -13.3 SG Approach over his last six rounds played.
The big-game hunter finally flashed some game last week. Of course we saw him post a T7 at the RBC Heritage before going MC-T62-MC in his next three starts. It’s a big decision to make this week. Is Koepka back or will he remain inconsistent like we’ve seen over the last 12 months?
Are the week-to-week car rides catching up to him? He lost strokes tee-to-green at the Memorial and only gained 0.1 T2G last week. He did impress at Pebble Beach last year, though, so don’t count him out after just a few rough weeks. He was one of the first names off my top-20 list below.
Ranking the Field
1. Justin Thomas
2. Jon Rahm
3. Rory McIlroy
4. Xander Schauffele
5. Bryson DeChambeau
6. Patrick Cantlay
7. Webb Simpson
8. Patrick Reed
9. Matthew Fitzpatrick
10. Abraham Ancer
11. Tyrrell Hatton
12. Hideki Matsuyama
13. Brooks Koepka
14. Gary Woodland
15. Tony Finau
16. Collin Morikawa
17. Daniel Berger
18. Rickie Fowler
19. Jason Day
20. Tiger Woods