The Golf World awaits another Koepka vs Woods Showdown as the PGA Championship 2019 tees off at the Extremely Difficult Bethpage Black on Thursday.
When the PGA Championship 2019 kicks off on Thursday it will mark the biggest change in the golfing calendar in the modern history of the game. For the first time, the PGA tournament will be played in May as the second Major of the year, rather than the fourth and final Major of the season in August.
The PGA has never quite been able to shed its reputation as the last of the Majors (in every sense of the word) and has always been somewhat overshadowed by the US Masters, The US Open and The (British) Open, despite probably having the strongest starting field of the four tournaments. Phil Mickelson, for one, would certainly have exchanged his one Wanamaker Trophy for an as yet elusive US Open title. With the tournament moving to May the hope is that the PGA 2019 will finally equal the allure of the three other Majors.
So far, the theory seems to be working, with interest in the tournament sky-high in the wake of Tiger Woods’ sensational comeback victory at Augusta last month – ending an 11-year drought on the Major scene.
The Tiger Factor
Tiger’s first Major victory since the 2008 US Open naturally makes him one of the favourites to lift the Wanamaker on Sunday afternoon, with odds hovering around 12 – implying around a 7,5 per cent win probability.
However, Tiger may be one of those taken slightly with their trousers down by the calendar change. The big question regarding Tiger is whether he will be fresh or rusty after not having played a single competitive round since Sunday at the Masters, on April 14th. He was originally scheduled to play the Wells Fargo Championship but pulled out after feeling understandably tired and sore after holding off Brooks Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Dustin Johnson to win the Masters by a shot. Another factor is all the sponsor, commercial and PR activities the Master victory has forced on Woods over the last month, an especially heavy workload when the victor is the greatest of all time – in contrast to the previous three years’ winners who have either been unpopular (Sergio Garcia in 17 and Patrick Reed last year) or unknown (Danny Willett in 16).
Woods admitted that he barely hit a ball in the first two weeks after the Masters. Nevertheless, that does not mean he comes unprepared. Tiger’s yacht has been docked in Long Island for the past two weeks. He was spotted on the course last Wednesday, before playing a practice round in cold conditions on Monday. A lawsuit regarding the death of an employee at Wood’s Florida restaurant should not be expected to deflect his usual steely focus.
Another popular refrain, sung by the likes of Sir Nick Faldo, is that if Tiger was ever going to win again it would always be the Masters at his beloved Augusta National, at the course he knows every nook and cranny of – and where he was able to get away with several errant drives. According to Sir Nick there may not be any such free out of jail cards on offer at Bethpage:
“He certainly will not be able to scramble like he did at Augusta. There, he made two birdies at 14 from the trees and two pars at 11 from the patrons’ walkway. That’s what made his week. I can’t see how he can be two under par from the wrong place at Bethpage.”
Still, if Woods can put in another such clinical performance as at Augusta on Bethpage he can certainly give the young guns a run for the money. Like at Augusta he can use his experience to play patiently knowing that pars will do the work, while the younger Skywalkers chase for birdies and risk being burned.
Bethpage Black: Hit it Long, Hit it Straight and Hit the Greens
Tiger also has the benefit of playing on familiar territory. Bethpage Black on Long Island, New York is one of the few public courses on the Major circuit and is famous for the unequivocal warning sign: “The Black Course Is An Extremely Difficult Course Which We Recommend Only For Highly Skilled Golfers”. The A. W. Tillinghast design will play as a 7.459 par 70. The course is not expected to be set up as difficult as the two US Opens played there in 2002 and 2009, with the superintendents of the PGA not nearly as nasty as those of the USGA. But rest assured, the Black course will still offer the players a stern test. With wet and cold conditions recently, the rough will be deep and thick and to hit greens from the long grass will be a challenge. As simple as it sounds the course will favour players who hit it long and accurately off the tee and who hit the greens in regulation.
Learning from History: Repeat Victories for Woods or Reed?
The last big tournaments played at Bethpage Black were:
- 2016 Barclays, (the first of the four FedEx Cup play-offs):
|1st||Patrick Reed (-9)|
|T2||Emiliano Grillo, Sean O’Hair (-8)|
|T4||Jason Day, Adam Scott, Gary Woodland (-7)|
|T7||Rickie Fowler, Jason Kokrak, Ryan Moore (-6)|
|T10||Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth (-5)|
- 2012 Barclays
|1st||Nick Watney (-10)|
|2||Brandt Snedeker (-7)|
|T3||Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson (-6)|
|T5||Graham DeLaet, Brian Harman, Louis Oosthuizen, Lee Westwood (-5)|
- 2009 US Open
|1st||Lucas Glover (-4)|
|T2||Ricky Barnes, David Duval, Phil Mickelson (-2)|
|5||Ross Fisher (-1)|
|T6||Tiger Woods, Hunter Mahan, Søren Hansen (E)|
- 2002 US Open
|1st||Tiger Woods (-3)|
|2||Phil Mickelson (E)|
|3||Jeff Maggert (+2)|
|T7||Sergio Garcia (+3)|
|T10||Nick Faldo, et al. (+5)|
As the scores show both the 2002 and 2009 US Opens played really hard. The 2002 tournament became an epic duel between Tiger and Phil, with the raucous New York crowds rooting for Phil. The 2009 tournament almost rained away and was as frustrating for the players as for the viewers. With the last Major being played at Bethpage a decade ago, the field is naturally much changed in the interim. Several of today’s big shots like Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth had barely or not at all arrived on the scene in 2009, not to speak of 2002.
Long Odds Contenders: Sergio, Reed and Phil
From the 2002 lineup only Tiger, Phil and Garcia remain serious contenders. Tiger and Phil were in the mix both in 02 and 09, while Sergio is the only player who has posted Top 5 finishes in both one of the Opens and Barclays’ held at Bethpage – which may make the 2017 Masters champion a reasonable long shot with odds of 40.
Having taken home the 2016 Barclays at Bethpage Patrick Reed cannot be written off the list of title challengers, and with odds ranging from 50-100 can look like an appealing long shot. However, the embattled “Captain America” has had a poor run of form lately. Reed has failed to post a single Top 10 finish so far in 2019 and has fallen to 20th in the Official World Golf Ranking.
That may make Phil Mickelson at 50-90 in odds a better bet. Although, since winning at Pebble Beach in February Lefty has failed to gather much momentum, with three missed cuts. With three early birdies, he looked to give it a go on Masters Sunday, before a double bogey at 10 put an effective end to any hopes of glory. He eventually settled tied for 18th.
The Favourites: Another Great Koepka vs Tiger Showdown?
No matter what the OWGR says (3rd) Brooks Koepka is arguably the best player in the world right now. The reigning champion enters the PGA fresh off a close but no cigar 4th place finish at the AT&T Byron Nelson last weekend and having won 3 of the last 7 Majors he has played in. Most recently a tie for second a shot behind Tiger at the Masters, having just missed a 5-meter birdie putt on the 72nd hole. Koepka tied for 70th at +7 in the 2016 Barclays, his only finish at Bethpage.
The PGA offers the prospect for a re-run of last year’s battle between Koepka and Woods and the 29 year old will surely be relishing the chance to come out on top yet again and thereby avenge the defeat at Augusta. At 10-12 he is the odds favourite together with Dustin Johnson, which may well be worth the money.
Frustrated Superstars: Can DJ and McIlroy Recover from Recent Breakdowns?
World number one Dustin Johnson broke a run of five straight Top 10 finishes when he finished a disappointing tie for 28th at the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town the week after the Masters, which was all the more surprising given that he entered the final round at the top of the leaderboard. But an unlikely 6-over 77 ruined his chances. The question is if DJ can now recover from this total collapse.
Rory McIlroy is in a similar situation, having wasted a title bid at Quail Hollow in the first weekend of May when his putter turned ice cold on him in the final round. After a frustrating eight consecutive pars the Ulsterman three-putted for bogey at 9, and letting anger get the better of him, followed up with a rookie double on the next hole. He ended the round at 2 over and had to settle for a tie for 8th.
Having won The Players in March McIilroy certainly has the caliber to suddenly put his putting problems behind and pull out a magical performance. But given how unfriendly he is with his short stick at the moment, his first Major victory since the 2014 PGA is not likely to happen at Bethpage this week.
Despite his talents, McIlroy has so far not even been close to showing the same consistency as Woods in his prime, thanks to his failing anger management and proneness to commit rookie mistakes.
At similar odds Koepka and Woods look like better value for money than Rory and DJ. Then, even the still Major-less Rickie Fowler, coming off a string of stellar performances or the out of form Justin Thomas, both at 16–20ish, look like better bets.
As always in a golf tournament, the winner is close to impossible to predict. What is certain is that this year’s PGA Championship will be the most exciting one in ages.