PGA Championship 2020: A wild Sunday produces a popular new champ and 17 other parting thoughts from Harding Park
SAN FRANCISCO — The first major championship of the COVID-19 era lacked roars but overflowed with drama. In the end, a 23-year-old from California emerged from a remarkably crowded leader board to nab his first major championship. Here are 18 parting thoughts from TPC Harding Park.
1. We start, as always, with the winner. Collin Morikawa always had major championships in his future. Now, they’re his present. His victory on Sunday saw him graduate from young star to superstar. No longer will he be compared to Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff—he’s now moved into the same conversation as Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas. There’s a good chance he’s the No. 1 player in the world come this time next year. Heck, if he had played enough tournaments to satisfy the World Rankings minimum divisor, he might be No. 1 right now. (It’s complicated math, but trust me on this one).
He’s that good, and people in the know have known this since he turned professional in June 2019. His iron play is one of those golf things that other tour pros marvel over. Think Mickelson’s short game, or Bryson DeChambeau’s power. That level. The last hurdle for him, it was thought, was his short game. Well, he chipped in for birdie on 14 to take the lead on Sunday of a major and led the field in strokes gained/putting for the week. He now has three wins, including a major, within 14 months of turning professional.
2. One more Morikawa item. This was a win for the little guys, inasmuch as such a thing is possible these days. Morikawa isn’t exactly short off the tee, but he’s not long, either—he came into the PGA ranked 110th in driving distance and gave up some 25 yards off the tee to guys like DeChambeau, Tony Finau and Cameron Champ. His victory was a heartening reminder that there is still a place in this game for a guy who finds fairways and greens, who overcomes a distance disadvantage with pure-as-hell ball-striking and flawless course management. He’s still 23, and his frame suggests room for growth, so perhaps Morikawa will add some distance as he progresses through his 20s. But for now, we can all smile a bit knowing a guy with ball speed in the high 160s can win a major on a course that seemingly begged for a bomber.
3. For three days, this tournament had Brooks Koepka written all over it. PGA Championship setups, which typically reward long, straight driving over all else, play right into his hands. He opened with 66, grinded out a 68 on Friday, and when he birdied 18 to get to within two heading into Sunday, you couldn’t help but think he was the favorite to win a third straight Wanamaker Trophy.
He, too, thought he was the favorite. In his post-round interview with CBS’ Amanda Balionis, he threw a dagger at Dustin Johnson—who we thought was his buddy, but according to Brooks, that was more a media creation than anything—by saying “he’s only won one.” In his talk with writers after, he kept it going, responding to a question about whether winning a second major is harder than the first by saying “if you look at the top of the leader board, yes.”
This sure seemed like a thinly veiled attempt to play mind games with DJ, and it went past his regular quasi trash-talk. This was full-on trash talk, which historically has been completely off limits in golf. Even prime Tiger Woods wouldn’t have said something so directly personal.
Yet Sunday didn’t work out the way Koepka planned, stumbling early in the final round en route to a four-over 74 that dropped him to T-29, 10 back of Morikawa.
Count me among the group that says karma probably got the last laugh on Brooks. But don’t expect him to soften his words going forward. This approach has worked more times than it hasn’t for him.
4. As discussed in our most recent episode of the Local Knowledge podcast—pardon the shameless plug—the margins in this sport are incredibly small. Walking down a driving range, you would not be able to tell most PGA Tour pros from most Korn Ferry Tour pros, and you might not even be able to separate PGA Tour pros from the best club pros.
There are, however, a few exceptions to this rule—guys whose ball flights just look different. Cameron Champ might be the best example. He’s as long as Bryson DeChambeau, but he does it with about 1/10th the effort. DeChambeau looks like a weightlifter listening to heavy metal in his pre-shot routine and swings as hard as he can to generate 190 mile per hour ball speed. Champ looks like he’s moving in slow motion as he approaches the ball, never loses balance and gets the same distance. And while DeChambeau’s bombs are typically high, Champ’s launch extremely low and hardly curve at all. It is truly impressive to witness first-hand. If and when fans are allowed back at tournaments, and if it’s feasible, do yourself a favor and watch Champ hit drivers.
5. There was a bunch of talk this week about who’s really the longest hitter on tour. The stats say it’s DeChambeau, but that’s in competition, where most guys don’t go all out. But if we rounded up the longest five guys, put them on a driving range and told them to let it rip … who’d come out on top? The most popular answer among players seemed to be Tony Finau, but we cannot be sure until we carry out the experiment. So let’s do it. On Wednesday of a FedEx Cup playoff event. For charity. DeChambeau, Champ, Finau, Bubba, Wolff, DJ and Rory. Who says no?
6. Shoutout to Matthew Wolff, who showed out in his first major championship start … and then some. He led the field in strokes gained/off the tee, strokes gained/tee to green, and finished three back despite losing roughly 3 shots to the field putting for the week. His Sunday 65 could have been lower, too; he missed a seven-footer for birdie on 12, another seven-footer for birdie on 13 and a three-footer for par on 14. At 21, Wolff is 26 months younger than Morikawa, so he better not spend any time dwelling on this, because he has nothing to take from this week beside major positives. Maybe Morikawa is the more completely player right now. But let’s see where Wolff is in two full years. I bet it’s somewhere close.
7. It was another tough putting week for Tiger Woods, which unfortunately has become a bit of a theme recently. If Woods had enough rounds to qualify, he’d have entered this week 207th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained/putting. How is that possible? How does one of the greatest putters of all time have struggle for such a prolonged period?
Simple answer: Age. When we think of a golfer getting old, we think of him losing his speed, struggling to keep up with the whippersnappers who can fly it 310. In reality, putting is often the first thing to go.
There’s a few reasons why. First, age often brings with it back issues, and the putting stance is one of the more difficult on the body. As you get older, you simply can’t spend hours upon hours practicing, crouched over drilling four-footers and bending all the way down to pick the ball out of the hole. Woods has spoken about this plenty of times. Second, the eyesight deteriorates, which makes it harder to read greens. Third, you lose some of the feel in your hands, making it harder to hold the club lightly and let the weight of the putterhead massage the back of the ball as the best putters do so well.
And then there’s the fear aspect. Yes, fear. When you’re young, you generally don’t have it. You’re not jaded by years of grinding. You have no scar tissue. You hammer those four-footers into the back of the cup because you’re not scared of—and probably not even thinking about—the comebacker. Remember how firm Tiger used to hit putts inside six feet? He doesn’t do that quite as much anymore. He’s thinking about the comebacker, and it shows.
8. One more thing about putters. Specifically, the armbar method that’s growing in popularity. DeChambeau, Matt Kuchar and Webb Simpson are among those employing it, using a long putter and putting with the grip running up your forearm. Says here it shouldn’t be allowed. I know they’re not breaking any rules, but wasn’t the whole point of the anchor ban a few years ago to try have guys “swing” the putter? The armbar method is exposing a loophole in the rule, which should be changed to something like: Only the player’s two hands may make contact with the grip of the putter.
9. It’s unclear how many people attempted to use the PGA Championship app this week, but if you’re like me and were among those who did, this is going to be a safe space to vent.
Let’s start with the fact the leader board was a good 20 minutes behind. Oh, and the shot tracker was a mess. There was no way to search a player’s name on top of the leader board, so you had to scroll-and-search to find where your favorite guys are. A mid-tournament update helped things a little, but there is simply no excuse for this in these tech-savvy times. Yes, we’re spoiled by the PGA Tour’s app and its new Tourcast feature, which updates in real time and gives fans a 3D view of each hole. And the Masters raised the bar last year with its tracking function, which also uploaded video of virtually every shot from the tournament immediately. But for better or worse, we’ve become accustomed to instant gratification in every aspect of life. Why should leader board tracking be any different?
10. On Friday, Cameron Tringale was disqualified for signing for a lower score on a hole than he made. Tringale signed for a par on the par-3 eighth when he made a bogey. He would have made the cut on the number; instead, he had an ignominious exit. Tringale has no one to blame but himself. But that’s also a silly rule. Every shot a tour pro hits is documented by machinery and walking scorers. Why are we making these guys keep their own scores anymore, given all the technology that exists to do exactly that.
11. Twenty club professionals teed it up this week. Twenty club professionals missed the cut. Alex Beach was the closest to seeing the weekend, and he missed it by three. I understand the value in having these guys play. It’s a nice reward, and they represent thousands of club pros who do great work, and there’s some charm in it. But 20? Do we really need 20 of them? Surely we could have half as many and still preserve the reward, the representation and the charm.
12. TPC Harding Park shined all week, a wonderful muny that ably tested the world’s best. Though very much set up for a major, I came to appreciate some of the delightful reminders of the course’s blue-collar DNA. The chain link fence behind the 11th green. Rectangular signs made of stone, showing renderings of the hole and telling you that it’s a 460-yard par 4 from the back tee and 418 yards from the blues. The signs telling you to beware of errant tee shots coming from an adjacent hole. The firm-as-hell bunkers, which had hardly any sand at the bottom. My personal favorite: the cut-in-half golf balls under a tree between the fourth and fifth fairways. Funny, I don’t recall seeing any of those at Augusta.
13. One negative about Harding Park: the eighth hole. It played as a 250-yard par 3, and you’d do well to find a good 250-yard par 3 anywhere in the world. It wasn’t always that way—during the 2009 Presidents Cup and the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship, it was closer to 200 yards. That green, simply put, wasn’t designed to hold 3-irons or fairway woods. Perhaps Paul Casey said it best: “It would be a great wedge hole, wouldn’t it? It’s just 100 yards too long. … It’s one of the toughest par 4s I’ve played.”
Not a typo, but a joke. Yet not all that many players were laughing after walking to the ninth tee.
14. At one point on Friday, the top two players on the leader board were Haotong Li and Mike Lorenzo-Vera. Of course, there’s a reason golf tournaments are 72 holes, and both guys finished well down the board (Li at T-17, Lorenzo-Vera T-43). But anyone considering taking up golf betting should be shown that leader board as a cautionary tale. Trying to predict what will happen in this game is the definition of a fool’s errand, and that’s why we love it so much.
Sean M. Haffey
15. So … who’s the best player in the world? It’s hard to recall another time when the answer to this question was so muddled. The rankings on this Monday say Jon Rahm. The rankings a day earlier said Justin Thomas. On Saturday, the most popular answer would have been Brooks Koepka. Collin Morikawa has two wins and a solo second since the restart, and he has the highest world ranking point average of any player. You can still make an argument for Rory McIlroy, though it’s not as persuasive as it was pre-COVID. Gone, gone, gone are the days when it was Tiger and everyone else.
16. One more thing about that McIlroy fellow. On Friday, his tee shot at the par-3 third finished well right of the green. Someone accidentally stepped on his ball during the search. When that happens, it’s on the player to try to recreate the lie to the best of his ability. A more cynical person would read that rule as giving a player an excuse to give himself a pretty good lie.
Not McIlroy. When he initially dropped the ball, he thought it was too good of a lie, so he made it a little worse and wound up making bogey. “At the end of the day, golf is a game of integrity,” he said, “and I never try to get away with anything out there.” Simply put, he is the perfect ambassador for this game.
Christian Petersen/PGA of America
17. Two quotes from this week, both from guys struggling to replicate past successes in majors, hit a little different, as the kids say.
First, Jordan Spieth: “I almost feel at times like the game is testing me a little bit right now. Because I feel really good about the progress I’ve been making, and then it seems like I’ll really have a good one brewing, and then where I used to hit a tree and go in the fairway, it’ll hit a tree and go off the cart path out-of-bounds like it did during my most recent round. It just feels like I kind of here or there am taking some punches right now.
Second, McIlroy, who was asked why it’s harder to contend in majors than normal events: “Maybe I’m just not as good as I used to be,” he said with a smile. “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I feel like the golf that I’ve played in the majors has been sort of similar to the golf I’ve played outside of them, and I’ve won some big events and played well and had a good season last season. Yeah, I can’t really put my finger on it. I go out there and try my best every single day. Some days I play better than others, and just got to keep going and keep persisting and see if you can do better the next time.”
Spieth gets asked about his struggles every time he speaks to media, and the same is true for Rory at majors. Neither guy shows much hint of annoyance. They never snap or clap back. They answer the questions respectfully and honestly, and let’s hope the golf gods reward them soon enough.
18. Man, that was a fun day. At 4:28 local time, nearly three hours after the final pairing teed off, there were seven players tied for the lead. The tournament was something like 95 percent finished, and we were no closer to knowing who would go home with the trophy. The world deprived us of a major championship Sunday for 13 months; Sunday did its best to make up for lost time. The best news? We get to do it all again in just six weeks’ time.
See you all in New York.