I’ve been known to knock the PGA Championship from time to time. It’s certainly my least favorite of the the four majors, and I firmly believe that the Players Championship has surpassed it as an event. I feel that winning a Players is more impressive than winning a PGA Championship. Despite my objections, the golf calendar is still designed around “the four modern majors” and, for now, the PGA Championship is one of them. It’s not helping the PGA’s cause that, because of the condensed Tour calendar to accommodate the Olympics, most of the golf world is still trying to process the incredible display put on at Royal Troon by Phil Mickelson and Open champion Henrik Stenson. Nobody seems “ready” for the year’s last major. Usually, the narrative going into the PGA is “players x, y, and z need to validate or salvage their season.” Since there hasn’t been time for the participants to unpack from Scotland, let alone recharge and properly prepare for a classic golf course, there hasn’t been that sense of urgency. For example: Jason Day, the defending champion and number-one ranked player in the world, who has already won three times this year, including the aforementioned Players Championship as well as a WGC, only played one practice round at Baltusrol before Thursday’s first round. Jason Day really needs a win this week if he wants to keep a hold of that top spot in the OWGR and lock up player of the year honors. Day was “the guy” coming into 2016, and it will probably be perceived as a disappointment if he doesn’t win a major. It’s not just Day that’s looking to flip the story of his season. Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy are in the same boat. Rory’s game is trending in the right direction. He’s played well enough to win several tournaments over the last few months, and he has a lower scoring average in the PGA Championship than any player in the last 25 years (including Tiger). Spieth’s game isn’t quite as sharp, and it would be a pretty big surprise if he found last year’s magic this week. To a certain extent, those three are victims of their own recent success. They’ve set the bar so high, a season without a major championship is a lost year.
I don’t know much about Baltusrol. It’s a classic Tillinghast design, it’s hosted multiple professional and amateur major championships, it finishes with back-to-back par fives at 17 & 18, and Phil Mickelson won his lone PGA Championship here in 2005 (the last time the PGA was contested at Baltusrol). That’s about it. But it’s enough to make me think Phil has to be the favorite going in. Lefty finished runner-up for the 11th time in his major career at the British Open. Nearly every one of those runners-up is memorable, and for every reason imaginable. Sometimes Phil loses because he collapses (Winged Foot for sure, Shinnecock and Merion to a lesser degree), and sometimes it’s because the only player to beat him does so by crafting a historic performance (Stenson at Troon, Spieth at Augusta last year, David Toms at AAC, even Tiger separating from the field at Bethpage in 2002). Now, nobody’s going to feel sorry for Phil, but he’s had more than his share of bad luck to go along with his recklessly aggressive mistakes. He’s an all-time great, winner of five majors, still one of the highest-earning athletes in the world at 46 years old, and playing some of the best golf of his life. He’s healthier and fitter than he was when he won here over a decade ago, and if he continues to drive the ball with confidence, there’s absolutely no reason to think he can’t do it again. I can’t come up with a better argument for anyone else (of course, I’m the same guy that was convinced Matt Kuchar was going to win the British….oof).
It’s always fun to scan the groupings before a major championship to see how the biggest names get slotted. The PGA of America hasn’t disappointed. I’m leaning toward Phil as my winner, but I’m going to give myself some wiggle room and predict that the winner will come from the grouping of Day, McIlroy, and Mickelson. Those three former PGA Champions tee off together at 8:30 am on Thursday.
There are two other groupings worth keeping a close eye on the first two days. The three major champions of 2016 go off together at 1:45 in the first round. Danny Willett, Dustin Johnson, and Henrik Stenson are my “#2 seed” of the groupings. DJ’s won a major and a WGC in the last six weeks, and he hung tough at the Open. He probably should have won in Canada last week. He’s practicing hitting wedges for the first time ever (!), and those lessons are paying massive dividends. The most athletically gifted man on the PGA Tour is starting to figure it all out at 32 years of age. That thought scares some of DJ’s competitors. Henrik Stenson, however, won’t be scared of anyone after his record-breaking performance at Troon. Quite simply, Hank played the finest 72 holes of championship golf in history. His final round was the best round of golf I’ve ever watched. That was two weeks ago. He’s probably still pretty good, but will he be as focused now that he has crossed the line and claimed his first major?
My third and final group to watch: Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson, and Sergio Garcia. We’ve been seeing some cracks in Jordan Spieth’s unfailingly polite and boyishly charming public persona. His game is off, and things aren’t clicking like they were during his remarkable 2015. Reporters want to know why he isn’t as good as he was last year, and he doesn’t know what to tell them anymore. I get why that would wear on a guy. The best way to avoid having to answer more of those questions is to go out and win. I don’t see Spieth trending in that direction, but it wouldn’t shock me. I think Baltusrol will suit Bubba. It’s long, but will be scoreable. The doglegs should fit his shotmaking eye. Watson’s overall record in majors is surprisingly poor for a guy that’s won two of them, but results don’t lie. I’d rank him 3rd in his own group. I can’t believe it, but I’m actually rooting for Sergio out of this group. I don’t know when it happened, but I’ve pulled a full 180 on Sergio. He’s become a sympathetic figure. I want him to win a major. There isn’t a player out there that a major championship victory would mean more to (including Sergio’s Ryder Cup teammate Lee Westwood). I wouldn’t have thought it possible even a few years ago, but I’m pulling for Sergio. Despite some of my complaints about the PGA Championship in general, and this year’s edition in particular, I’m sure this weekend will be a great tournament. The scoreable setup and the urgency to finish the major season on a high note almost always makes for an exciting event. Hopefully, the 2016 PGA Championship will meet the standard set in recent editions past. It better. It’s gonna be a long wait for the Masters.