For more than 40 years, the PGA Championship was contested as the fourth and final major of the golf season, with the lame declaration of “Glory’s Last Shot” in the CBS promos, as sports fans were tending to look more at baseball pennant races and NFL training camps.
The 102nd PGA, which begins Thursday, has returned to the August sports schedule, but its spot there this year is more significant. Instead of being the last major of 2020, it is the first, an unlikely shuffle brought about by the coronavirus pandemic that has left fans starving for sports but unable to attend them.
When the first tee ball is struck at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, it will mark 382 days since the final round of the most recent major, the 2019 Open Championship at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland. The PGA went through a frightful process to get to this point, beginning on March 17 when the event was postponed from its original May dates.
After three weeks, the decision was made to reschedule the tournament for this week, but it was more an extended “hold-your-breath” situation as California mandated its residents to shelter in place. The course reopened on May 4, but the PGA of America, together with state and local officials, announced June 22 that its championship would be held without fans.
So while there won’t be the excitement of the public following their favorites around the picturesque layout on Lake Merced, the chance to see a major on television will be a relief for golf fans nationwide. The networks — ESPN on Thursday and Friday, CBS on Saturday and Sunday — will show the tournament in prime time.
There are two main storylines going into Thursday — the attempt of Brooks Koepka to win his third PGA in a row, which would be second only to Walter Hagen’s four straight from 1924 through 1927 when the event format was match play, and the bid by Tiger Woods to break Sam Snead’s all-time record of 82 career PGA Tour victories while winning his 16th career major.
For both Koepka and Woods, it’s a matter of health.
Koepka, 30, who finished in a tie for second Sunday at the World Golf Championship-FedEx event, underwent a stem-cell procedure last fall on his injured left knee, but the joint continues to bother him.
“It limits what I can do,” Koepka said before the start of the WGC tournament. “I don’t know how to explain this well, but I can’t run. I take these little steps and try to do it very quickly; that’s kind of my run right now. Biking, I can do it like once a week without it flaring up and getting too painful. It’s definitely changed a lot of things for me, that’s for sure.”
Woods, 44, will be playing for only the second time since the PGA Tour’s June restart. He had some back tightness at last month’s Memorial Tournament and will be competing this week in temperatures expected to be in the mid-60s daily, not exactly ideal for someone with back issues.
Many were surprised when Woods skipped last weekend’s WGC event, held in the 90-degree heat of Memphis, Tenn. In a tweet explaining his absence, Woods said, “Disappointed to miss @WGCFedEx but doing what I think is best to prepare for the @PGAChampionship and upcoming FedExCup Playoffs.”
“Tiger only has four competitive rounds under his belt,” ESPN golf analyst Andy North said. “I don’t think that’s enough for him to go out there and be at his best. I think the biggest problem for him could be the weather. San Francisco at this time of year … it could be foggy, it could be drizzly. We’ve seen historically that his body doesn’t operate very well under those conditions.”
Others to watch include Justin Thomas, who rose to No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings with his win in Memphis, his third victory of the season; long-hitting Bryson DeChambeau, who has a win and three other top-10 finishes since the restart, and two-time 2020 winner Webb Simpson.
Opened in 1925, Harding Park, one of the nation’s top public courses, is a picturesque layout lined with cypress and Monterey pine trees where a player must be able to precisely shape his shots. The course was home to WGC events in 2005 and 2015, and the 2009 Presidents Cup. It is the second public course to host a PGA is as many years, after Bethpage (N.Y.) Black in 2019.