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PGA Championship 2024: The 8 best storylines to follow at Valhalla

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May 15, 2024

LOUISVILLE — Everywhere you travel in this town, there’s a reminder of its sporting identity. Horse motifs. Churchill Downs' spires etched into all forms of artwork. On building facades, diamond-shaped patterns of color like jockeys wears on their silks. This is, after all, the Derby City—the biggest thing this state has been known for, beyond bourbon, for the past 150 years.

Golf—in the form of a significant sporting event at least—has just happened to invade these parts for short stints a few times over the last three decades, and you’d have to say that Valhalla Golf Club’s “win” percentage is impressively high. Mark Brooks’ victory in Kentucky’s inaugural PGA Championship in 1996 came in a playoff over a commonwealth hero, Kenny Perry, and since then the champions have been Tiger Woods in a scintillating three-hole playoff against unheralded Bob May in 2000 and Rory McIlroy, who putted out in the Sunday gloaming to camera flashes for his fourth—and currently last—major victory.

Valhalla has its detractors as a one-trick pony test with driver off nearly every tee, but there’s no disputing the exciting finishes it has produced—thanks, in part, to its fascinating, risk-reward par-5 18th. And there arguably is not an easier major for which to identify the top three favorites than this one, this year. In a rare and possibly unprecedented circumstance, World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, No. 2 Rory McIlroy and No. 39 Brooks Koepka (only ranked that “low” because he plays for LIV Golf) all go into the 2024 PGA Championship having won their last starts, with Scheffler and McIlroy, in fact, each going for three straight. Koepka, of course, is the reigning PGA champion whose victory at Oak Hill last year put him in rare territory with five major wins (three PGAs, two U.S. Opens).

Throw in a rare competitive sighting of Woods, another career Grand Slam bid by Jordan Spieth, a hometown start by two-time PGA winner Justin Thomas, unpredictable weather and a possible farewell to majors at Valhalla, and there is plenty to buzz about come Thursday’s first tee shots. Here's our look at the top storylines.

Rory has a lot on his plate

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Rory McIlroy celebrates winning the 2014 PGA.

Andrew Redington

It has been a fantastic couple of weeks for McIlroy. He won the Zurich Classic with one of his best golf mates, Shane Lowry, and backed it up with a huge runaway victory last week at his beloved Wells Fargo Championship. His game finally looks fit enough to put him over the top to repeat at Valhalla for his first major win in nearly 10 years.

But then … we get the news that McIlroy filed for divorce from his wife Erica on Monday of PGA week. Nod your head here if you were truly shocked. The timing is curious, to say the least, and while McIlroy will no doubt face questions about it in his press conference on Wednesday, this is a guy who’s had to compartmentalize his life to a greater degree than anyone on tour, what with starting a new golf league, TGL, with Woods; his verbal battle and change of heart on the Saudis and LIV; him joining, then resigning, then trying to unsuccessfully re-join the PGA Tour’s policy board, and now being named to the tour’s transaction subcommittee.

This would all seem impossible to manage, but McIlroy turned a nerve-jangling battle with Xander Schauffele last Sunday into a stunning route for his 26th tour victory, so the guy apparently has walls of steel put up between the various rooms in his heart and brain.

Who’s your daddy and your caddie?

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Scottie Scheffler shared his emotions after winning the 2024 Masters.

Warren Little

Scheffler has had a fantastic couple of weeks because he didn’t play golf. His wife, Meredith, gave birth to their first child a week ago, and Scottie seemed blown away by the whole experience. “It was nuts” he kept repeating on Tuesday at Valhalla. Will he be emotionally exhausted from becoming a dad, with a potential letdown for the odds-on favorite?

Don’t bet on it. Scheffler may have the smoothest “on” switch of any player out there, and he is, after all, coming off back-to-back wins in the Masters and RBC Heritage. He also is 4-for-5 in notching top-10 finishes in the PGA, and Valhalla seems custom-built for his game. If he was feeling the pressure, it figures to have been relieved by the arrival of son Bennett and the ability to now singularly focus on what he does so well: win.

Too, Scheffler might be doubling down on bonus golf karma, agreeing to let his caddie, Ted Scott, slip away from the tournament after Friday's round to get to his daughter's graduation on Saturday. Scott would then be back for the final round on Sunday. Let's hope Teddy is flying private.

Brooks back in comfort zone

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Brooks Koepka celebrates his win in the 2023 PGA.

Keyur Khamar

It was on the first season of Netflix’s “Full Swing” that Koepka seemed "existentially" lost. In 2022, he was less than a year removed from surgery to reconstruct his right knee, and while there were myriad changes to his body, his mind was not in a good place either. “I’m going to be honest with you, I can’t compete with these guys week in and week out,” Koepka admitted as the cameras rolled.

Fast forward to the PGA at Oak Hill last year, where Koepka produced a three-under 67 in the final round to beat two of the game’s best, Scheffler and Viktor Hovland, by two shots and become only the 20th player to own at least five major wins. “This is probably the sweetest one of them all,” Koepka said at the time.

The 34-year-old remains a sometimes polarizing and surly figure whose talent is displayed in bursts. But the majors are his jam, and Koepka carries the confidence of his victory in LIV Singapore in early May, when he shot 15 under in only three rounds.

Spieth and his slam

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This is the sixth time Jordan Spieth will be trying to close out the career Grand Slam with a PGA win.

Christian Petersen

So much is made of McIlroy arriving at Augusta National with one major still to secure to complete the career Grand Slam. That’s probably because the Masters is at the same venue, but Spieth has the same potential for his own slam every time he tees it up on the PGA, be it at Kiawah or Oak Hill or Valhalla.

Spieth, now 30, won the Masters and U.S. Open in 2015, checked off the Open Championship two years later, and now he’s played the PGA six times with a chance to join five others with the career slam. His closest call in the PGA came in that phenomenal year of 2015, with Spieth finishing solo second by three shots to Jason Day.

Spieth missed the cut at Valhalla in the 2014 PGA, and recent form doesn’t exactly point to success this week. The Texan has missed the cut in four of his last seven starts and doesn’t have a top-10 finish since the season-opening Sentry.

Tiger returns to scene of his May Day

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Tiger Woods signs autographs during a practice at Valhalla.

Andy Lyons

Among Woods’ 15 major victories, his fifth still ranks among the most memorable, with Tiger getting help from a lucky cart-path kick (or fan assist?) at Valhalla in 2000 to beat journeyman Bob May in a three-hole playoff. Woods was 24 then; now he’s 48. And, unfortunately, his appearances in majors the last few years since his 2021 car accident have lacked any realistic expectation for victory.

The upside? We haven’t truly seen this newest version of Tiger at his best. He’s only made two starts this season, and Woods had misfortune in both—pulling out sick in the second round at Riviera and a bad weather draw forcing him to traverse 23 holes on Friday in the Masters. Remarkably, Woods made his record 24th straight cut at Augusta, but the fight it took just to be there took everything out of him, and Woods faded by going 82-77 on the weekend.

It would sure be nice to see Tiger at least get a “normal” shot at showing where his game is, but …

There could be weather troubles again

The PGA’s move from August to May seemed particularly good for the event in Kentucky, which is not exactly a garden spot in late summer. But spring brings the potential for rain and (sigh) thunderstorms, and we’ve got chances for both to muddy the competitive waters.

After rain most of the day on Wednesday, the forecast calls for Thursday to be decent, with no showers until after dark. But there is a 90-percent chance of rain (and possible thunderstorms) on Friday—ugly for trying to finish 36 holes in two days—with a 54-percent chance on Saturday. If they're still trying to finish rounds, there isn’t any rain forecast for Sunday, but it will be toasty in the mid-80s.

JT’s home game

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Justin Thomas smiles during press conference at PGA.

Maddie Meyer/PGA of America

Louisville native Justin Thomas first met his idol Jack Nicklaus at Valhalla’s 1996 PGA and saw in-person as Tiger won the 2000 PGA, so the place has fond memories. And now Thomas is a two-time PGA champion who gets his first shot at a home win that would make for a raucous Sunday celebration.

“Well, the good news is I have a pretty easy time putting a lot of pressure on myself already, so that shouldn't be too much of an adjustment,” Thomas said Tuesday with a smile.

There isn’t exactly a lot of home-track advantage, Thomas contends, because he realized while playing a practice round on Sunday that he probably hadn’t toured Valhalla in at least eight years. But the 31-year-old does favor PGA course setups—we did mention he’s won the PGA twice—and the recent form is decent, including a T-5 at RBC Heritage with four scores in the 60s.

Last chance for bromance?

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Valhalla's dogleg par-5 18th hole has been the spot for dramatic finishes over the years.

Gary Kellner

It would make for a tidy ending in Valhalla’s potential swan song if a native were to win. Hosting four majors and a Ryder Cup over 28 years is an impressive run for any venue, but this could also be Valhalla’s last hurrah—at least for quite some time.

The course’s stature has been tied to the fact the PGA of America owned it, but a group of local businessmen bought Valhalla and now its future with major championships seems in question. The USGA won’t come calling, the PGA Championship is booked through 2031, and the PGA of America has a new darling course at PGA Frisco outside Dallas, with two PGA Championships scheduled there in 2027 and ’34.

Valhalla’s proud owners, however, remain hopeful. “We fully expect to get another PGA Championship. And we fully expect to host major golfing events in the future,” co-owner Dan Novak, former CEO of Yums! Brand, told the Associated Press.

Whether that happens or not, another fantastic finish this Sunday would only cement Valhalla’s legacy as a stage whose drama at the wire was as satisfying as any photo finish at Churchill Downs.

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