By Neil Leverett
- First golf major of 2020 begins at TPC Harding Park in California on Thursday
- Brooks Koepka seeks to win third successive PGA crown after wins at Bethpage and Bellerive
- Both Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy hold WGC Championship victories on Bay Area course
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – Brooks Koepka will be eyeing a third consecutive PGA Championship, as the first golf major of 2020 begins at TPC Harding Park in California on Thursday.
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382 days on from Shane Lowry‘s Open Championship win at Royal Portrush, this Thursday sees the return of major championship golf to the sporting menu, as TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, California, hosts the 2020 USA PGA Championship.
Having been the traditional final major of the year before its’ switch on the calendar last year, the PGA returns to summer roots this year and set to break new ground without fan attendance, the eyes of the golfing fraternity will be on the Bay Area.
So as the West coast course hosts its’ first major, what can we expect this weekend?
Koepka eyes triple crown
Brooks Koepka arrives in California with the rare distinction of having successfully held the PGA crown for the past two years. Should the Floridian retain the trophy once more, he will become the first player since Peter Thompson‘s 1964, 1965 and 1966 victories in the Open, to win the same title three years running.
The 30-year-old Jupiter native has won four majors since his meteoric rise in 2017 – the other two consecutively at the US Open in 2017 and 2018 – and also finished tied for second and fourth at the Masters and Open last season respectively.
Holding a seven-shot lead in the final round at Bethpage 15 months ago, Koepka held on after a nervy back nine in New York last year and having honed his talents on the European Tour, the potentially unaccustomed quarters of Harding Park may play into Koepka’ hands once more. History beckons.
Tiger on the prowl?
As the PGA Championship rolls into the Western U.S. for the first time since Sahalee Country Club in 1998, Tiger Woods will be afforded another chance to close the gap on Jack Nicklaus‘ 18 major wins, in his native California no less.
The Cypress-born 44-year-old broke his 11-year drought for one of golf’s big four crowns at Augusta in 2019, slipping on an emotional fifth green jacket in the famous Butler cabin two springs ago.
A lack of playing time could be the main issue for Woods here, who has began to show the rust in his now veteran years. So much so, that should the American claim a fifth PGA title this weekend, he would become the oldest player to do so since Lee Trevino in 1984.
Woods however remains bullish of his chances and quoted by SkySports in his pre-tournament presser, stated he is feeling good and also excited for the challenges ahead in California:
“This is what I’ve been gearing up for. We’ve got a lot of big events starting from here, so I’m looking forward to it. This is going to be a fun test for all of us. The rough is up, and the fairways are much more narrow than they were here in 2009.
I haven’t played that much, but with the results that I’ve seen at home, I’m very enthusiastic about some of the changes I’ve made and so that’s been positive. Keep building, keep getting ready and be ready come Thursday.”
McIlroy back in picture?
For Rory McIlroy, a return to the Bay Area will be a welcome one for the Northern Irishman, who like Woods, won the WCG championship event in 2015 ten years after Tiger’s win.
With his major-less streak now stretching back to 2014, the 31-year-old will looking to his last victory six years ago this weekend at Valhalla as a source of inspiration, with something of a clean slate to go from after the COVID-19 hiatus.
Though McIlroy has admitted his struggle for focus with a lack of fans in the preamble, it could yet be however that without the pressure of the ever-wild US galleries that the Briton flourishes without the weight of their expectations – and indeed, his own.
Thomas, Rahm in mix
Fresh from his win at the FedEx St. Jude Invitational in Memphis this past weekend, Justin Thomas is man who lurks in the shadows this weekend, indeed his sole major win to date came in the 2017 edition of the tournament at Quail Hollow three years ago.
Newly-crowned world number one for the second time in his career, the Kentuckian has three Tour wins to his name during a curtailed season thus far and after a run of major frustration, is poised to make his mark again. Intriguingly, Thomas is paired with Woods and McIlroy for the opening two rounds.
Jon Rahm comes into weekend one spot below the American in the rankings – having been dethroned – with the Spaniard having continued to tease at a maiden major win last season.
The 25-year-old from the Basque Country enjoyed a breakthrough last 12 months, underpinned by finishing tied for third in last year’s trip to California for the US Open at Pebble Beach in June 2019.
Having finished 11th or better in four of the last five majors played, could Rahm eclipse the closest to an Iberian PGA win since 1999 and 2008, when Sergio Garcia twice came in behind Woods and Padraig Harrington respectively?
Elsewhere, last year’s US Open champion Gary Woodland came close to the PGA crown in 2018 and will be regarded as one to watch, whilst the Brit pack of Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton in particular will likely lead home interest – with the latter having won the Arnold Palmer Invitational earlier this year.
Harding Park challenge
Having been shrouded in Pacific fog, coupled with cool and windy conditions for the opening practice rounds ahead of Thursday’s tee times, Harding Park will likely present a unique challenge this weekend.
Surrounded by Lake Merced on the west side of San Francisco State University, the 95-year-old, near-7,200 yard course has been an active venue on the 2010 TPC rotation since 2010 and was reopened after renovation in 2003.
A Par 72, the Californian environs will play much like a traditional links layout, with exposed fairways and greens across its’ 18 holes. The one main feature over the weekend will be the course’s thicker-than-usual rough, with fairways playing narrower also.
Depending on this summer’s unpredictable weather conditions rolling off the Bay, Harding Park will pose a test for the world’s best come Sunday and as the chance for golf’s contenders to write a new chapter of their own, could a star emerge from the pack?
The 2020 PGA Championship begins on Thursday at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, California.
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