PGA Championship storylines: Don’t count Tiger Woods out at TPC Harding Park

Golf handicapper Indy Jeff joins Follow The Money to explain why he's all in with Brooks Koepka at the PGA Championship, and also gives a few more names to look at in the strong field.

It’s been a weird, tough year – including for organizers of the PGA Championship.

In 2019, the longstanding final major championship of the season was moved to be played in May going forward, becoming the second major on the calendar. Due to COVID-19, however, the PGA Championship has been moved back to its old spot on the calendar, in August, and for 2020 it will be the first major of the year.

Got all that?

Regardless, after the longest in-season break for the PGA Tour since World War II, it’s nice to have major-championship golf back again. And with that, there is a cornucopia of storylines that could unfold over the coming days.

Here’s a breakdown of things to keep an eye on before the first major championship of the year.

A STRONG CANADIAN CONTINGENT

Last week at the World Golf Championship-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, there were four Canadians playing for the first time in WGC history. This week that same foursome will tee it up at the PGA Championship – but they may look forward to their Tuesday game more than the tournament itself.

Adam Hadwin and Nick Taylor, both from Abbotsford, B.C., have been taking on Corey Conners and Mackenzie Hughes, both from Ontario (Listowel and Dundas, respectively), in some weekly matches the last little while.

“We’ve been having a bit of a consistent game now, which has been nice. It’s been good for us,” says Hadwin. “Nick and I lost last time, though. We’ve been playing West Coast versus East Coast. I think the West Coast is due for a win.”

Although the West Coast squad was defeated by Hughes and Conners, Hadwin remains the country’s top-ranked male in the World Golf Ranking at No. 60. Conners is 65th, while Hughes is 74th and Taylor is 100th. It’s the first time in the history of the ranking there are four Canucks in the world’s top-100.

Each guy has had his turn in the spotlight during the Tour’s “Return to Golf,” all notching solid results over the last few weeks. But now it’s a different kind of stage – a major championship one – and it’s not just “nice to see” the Canadian contingent, we’ve got legit contenders in our midst.

Hadwin tells Sportsnet this week will be unique and the first time that playing in front of no fans will really have an impact on a player’s psyche.

“I think without fans, usually you see quite a big change when you got into a major week all of a sudden you’re out there on a Monday and stands are filled and fans are all over the golf course which you just don’t see at a regular PGA Tour event,” says Hadwin.

“This week it looks the exact same to what we’ve been playing since the restart.”

Hadwin says he hopes to lean on some good West Coast vibes to have a solid result. He admits his game since returning from the long break has been “pretty hit and miss.” Hadwin was last in the field in putting at the WGC, something he says was “embarrassing.” But returning to grass he grew up playing on this week in San Francisco should do wonders for his short game.

“It happens,” he says of his results on the putting surface last week. “But we’re coming to the West Coast (and) I would fully expect things to turn around in that department. I’ve been happy with the way my short game has been in the restart – there has been some positives there I just need to put it together.”

Mike Weir is the only Canadian male to have won a major championship (Sandra Post and Brooke Henderson have won LPGA Tour majors) but with more chances than ever these days, don’t be surprised to see a Canadian flag hovering near the top of the leaderboard this week.

THE TIGER WOODS QUESTION

Tiger Woods returns to a place where he’s had nothing but success, but that was the old Tiger. Will the new Tiger be able to spark something from the past?

Woods won the then-WGC-American Express Championship at TPC Harding Park in 2005, and then went 5-0-0 at the Presidents Cup in 2009 hosted at the same venue (he also produced one of the sauciest club twirls in history that week). But this week is calling for brisk temperatures and high winds – not great for a guy in his mid-40s with a wonky back.

We haven’t seen much of Woods this year, which will likely be the norm moving forward. He played the Genesis Invitational in February and finished last amongst the group who made the cut. He then teed it up at the Memorial Tournament a couple of weeks ago and finished T40.

There were a handful of videos posted on social media of Woods at TPC Harding Park Monday, where he played nine holes. He looked solid and was swinging strong. But it was Monday – a lot can change by Thursday, and Woods has proven in the past no one really knows but him how his body will feel the morning of a tournament round.

Still, he’s Tiger Woods, this is California (where 14 of his 82 wins have come), and this is a major championship – don’t count him out, because he certainly isn’t. At the end of his Tuesday press conference, an on-site reporter asked a pointed question: “Can you win this week?”

Woods’ reply? “Of course.” Then he smiled, and walked off.

TPC HARDING PARK – A PEOPLE’S PGA

This is a golf course where, in 1998, cars were parked on its fairways when the U.S. Open was played at the Olympic Club across Lake Merced.

It has come a long way since then.

TPC Harding Park is a public track in San Francisco, named after former U.S. President Warren G. Harding and opened in 1925. It’ll play at approximately 7,200 yards and a par 70, becoming the first course on the West Coast to host a PGA Championship in more than 20 years. It was substantially renovated in the early 2000s after the aforementioned “parking lot” situation.

This will mark the second year in a row the PGA Championship has been played at a restored public facility after, in 2019, New York’s Bethpage Black added the PGA Championship to its resume, which also includes two U.S. Opens and an upcoming Ryder Cup.

Photos on social media from the course are showing super long rough and pure greens, as the golf course has been closed for nearly a month to public play.

The forecast is showing cool temperatures and wind. Combine the weather with the rough and you have the makings of a tough, long week.

BROOKS VS. BRYSON

It may not be the same kind of heavyweight title fight we see in boxing or mixed-marital arts, but this is golf and we’ll take what we can get.

Bryson DeChambeau very quickly became the most talked about athlete, let alone golfer, during the quarantine break after putting on 20 pounds of muscle in a short amount of time, and, in a recent interview with GQ saying he wanted to live to “130 or 140 years old.” That extra muscle helped lead him to results of T3-T8-T6-1 in the first four tournaments back.

Although he hasn’t been on top of his game the last few weeks, he’s still right in the middle of a “rivalry” with fellow basher Brooks Koepka, who just so happens to be the two-time defending PGA Champion.

Last week at the WGC, for example, DeChambeau was raked over Twitter’s coals for calling a rules official to try to get relief from a group of fire ants. The next day, Koepka – who has always been quick to remind DeChambeau (no top-15 results in majors) how many major championships he’s won – was caught on camera in the rough telling his caddie, “There’s an ant.”

Between that and the social post that implied DeChambeau had done steroids, the sports world deserves a DeChambeau-Koepka grouping at some point this week.

BIG NAMES, BIG DREAMS

The PGA Championship has, of course, produced many notable winners, such as Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Gary Player, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, and more. But it’s also produced some pretty random winners: Y.E. Yang, Shaun Micheel and Rich Beem immediately come to mind.

Still, it’s a major championship, and in a year like 2020 it holds a lot of weight as the first of the season.

Here are some other notable storylines:

Rory McIlroy: Former world No. 1 hasn’t won a major in six years, despite his consistently impressive efforts. He won the WGC-Match Play hosted at TPC Harding Park in 2015.

Jordan Spieth: The now 27-year-old hasn’t won a PGA Tour event since the 2017 British Open, and is going for the career grand slam this week having already won the Masters, the British and the U.S. Open.

Justin Thomas: The newly minted world No. 1 comes into the PGA having won last week’s WGC event, his third of the season. He’s got legendary caddie Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay on his bag again this week.

Jon Rahm, Xander Schauffele, Rickie Fowler, Tony Finau: The best players, other than DeChambeau, to have never won a major. Rahm reached No. 1 in the world after his victory at the Memorial but was promptly unseated by Thomas.

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