It’s been a long eight months and there are no azaleas nor pimento cheese sandwiches that I’m aware of this week, but we are finally to the first major of 2020. We will see 48 of the top 50 players in the world join an overall field of 156 players in San Francisco, Calif. for the 102nd PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park.
As is tradition, the field will include about 20 PGA Club Professionals, but it will still be the best field since the restart. Players will vie for the top purse thus far in this year’s shortened season with $11 million in total prize money and a cool $1.98 million to the champ. It’s also important to note that the PGA Media Guide lists that the top 70 and ties make the cut after 36 holes, a slight but important change from the now standard top 65 and ties.
There is certainly no shortage of storylines in the field this week.
Brooks Koepka comes in looking to win his third consecutive Wannamaker Trophy and seems to be rounding into form off of a second-place finish at last week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
Justin Thomas took the win in Memphis and moved back to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings as he eyes his second major championship.
Tiger Woods returns for just the second time since the break, seeking to win a record breaking 83rd time in his career and to capture his 16th major championship.
Lastly, Jordan Spieth will look to find his game as he gets another shot at completing the career Grand Slam.
I could certainly go on, but let’s take a look at TPC Harding Park and how it will set up for the players.
TPC Harding Park
TPC Harding Park, named for President Warren G. Harding, is a municipal golf course owned by the City of San Francisco. It was designed and converted from a lettuce farm to a golf course in 1925 by Willie Watson and Sam Whiting. After it had become a bit run down and even used as a parking lot for the 1998 U.S. Open at neighboring Olympic Club, it was renovated in 2003. Since that renovation, it has hosted several major golf and PGA TOUR events including the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship, 2009 President’s Cup and the 2015 WGC-Cadillac Match Play.
This year, the course has been stretched out to a 7,234-yard Par 70, with new tees added to several holes. The players will hit into narrow fairways surrounded, then approach into Bentgrass greens averaging 7,000 square feet in size. There are just two listed water hazards on the course, with the primary one being Lake Merced, though neither are said to be in play on any holes. Lastly, there are a number of dogleg left holes, which favors a draw for right-handed players.
There are two Par 5s, with the 607-yard fourth hole likely reachable in two by only the longest drivers in the field, like Bryson Dechambeau and Rory McIlroy. Conversely, the Par-5 10th starts the back nine with likely one of the easiest and most scoreable holes on the course. The majority of the field will be able to reach the 562-yard hole in two if positioned well off the tee, leading to eagle and birdie chances.
The seventh and 16th holes are 340 and 336 yards, respectively, and stand out as exciting risk/reward opportunities. I’d expect some of the longer hitters to attack the green off the tee as these holes are mostly protected just by bunkers. The potential for big scoring swings in these holes will be must-see TV over the weekend.
All of this fun scoring talk is brought to a halt at the Par-3 eighth, which is listed to play at 251 yards! Depending on the wind direction, some players may have to contemplate driver off this tee. There is no rest of the weary at this point of the outward nine as they will then turn to finish the front at a 515-yard Par 4. The ninth is one of seven Par 4s playing longer than 460 yards, while the other three Par 3s play no longer than 200 yards.
The tournament could be decided at the 463-yard Par 4 final hole, which is a dogleg left around Lake Merced. The 18th hole was one that had a new tee added, creating additional risk to carry the lake or bail out short of the fairway bunkers leading up to the multi-tiered green. This hole will prove to be one of the tougher tests in each player’s round and hopefully it will provide some big time drama on the 72nd hole on Sunday.
There appears to be a little bit of everything in this course set up, with the ability to expose any weaknesses in the players’ games, and likely leading us to a champion who displays the best all-around form.
Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green will give us the most predictable aspect to identify that golfer and it will be the main stat I lean on this week.
While there have been prior PGA events at the course, it’s hard to gather much statistical information on the style of player this course favors from those events. The only stroke play tournament was 15 years ago, where Tiger Woods bested John Daly in a playoff at 10-under. The two others were match-play setups and lacked traditional scoring or statistics. One stat that did seem to stand out both in 2005 and 2015 was that driver distance is a factor. Tiger and Daly were two of the longest players on tour in 2005 and Rory McIlroy won the 2015 Match Play over Gary Woodland, who are both near the top of the driver distance statistic each year.
Based on the information from previous events and how the PGA TOUR seems to have the course set up, I do believe it will favor the bombers. While I will lean to the long and straight hitters, I will also be looking for an elite ball striker and iron player, as well as someone with the ability to consistently get up-and-down around the green. Majors are when the cream rises to the top.
TPC Harding Park should be a great test for the best players in the world, and I believe we will see one of the elite players in the world holding the Wannamaker on Sunday evening.