PGA Championship 2023: The PGA played like Switzerland with groupings based on quality and not juicy PGA Tour vs. LIV storylines
Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland shake hands at the 2023 Genesis Invitational.
Let’s get the biggest question on groupings for the 105th PGA Championship that begins on Thursday out of the way first.
What did they do with the LIV Golf guys?
Admit it, that was your first thought when you saw the pairings were out on Tuesday. You scrolled and scrolled to find that one juicy tidbit. You wanted dramatic stare-downs, silent walks and any sign of brewing gamesmanship. You wanted Justin Thomas and Patrick Reed together. Or better yet, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson.
You scrolled and scrolled and got … nothing, other than the notion that the PGA of America is playing Switzerland this week between the PGA Tour golfers and those who bolted for LIV Golf. PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh said himself on Tuesday: “Everybody who's here this week is our invited guest, and we're happy to have them and we're going to treat them all the same.”
The PGA of America chose résumés over controversy, with a string of mega groups headlined by major champions. Reed, the 2018 Masters champ, might be a bit miffed, since he didn’t make one of the those threesomes and is paired with the less-esteemed Rasmus Hojgaard and Nick Taylor. But Mickelson, for example, got a favorable draw with Rickie Fowler and Patrick Cantlay despite harsh words for the PGA in recent tweets. The Californians figure to be pretty chill with each other.
Other LIV headliners and former major winners Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Cam Smith and Bryson DeChambeau all landed in marquee groupings, and the only other interesting takeaway is that none of the 17 LIVers are together in a threesome.
Make of that what you will, but as with any major, we do think there are some notable and highly entertaining groupings, noted herewith:
In the span of just over at hour beginning at 8 a.m. Eastern on Thursday, the PGA of America is sending off a trio of threesomes with a combined 14 major championship titles. And there’s not a ceremonial inclusion in the bunch, every man seemingly with a legitimate chance to lift the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday.
It starts with the Bombers group of World No. 2 and last year’s Masters champ Scottie Scheffler, the resurgent Koepka—winner of two PGAs—and Gary Woodland, the 2019 U.S. Open champion at Pebble Beach.
Eleven minutes later comes, arguably, the most compelling group in the entire draw, with McIlroy, Thomas and Collin Morikawa playing together. Thomas is the defending and two-time PGA champ, the supreme ball-striker Morikawa already has two major wins under his belt, and McIlroy is, well … McIlroy, a constant fascination for his ability to dominate like few others, only to sometimes struggle mightily, as is currently the case.
We said “arguably,” because if you want to see the best the game has to offer in all phases, you won’t beat the trio of three reigning major winners—World No. 1 and the recent Masters champion, Jon Rahm; 2022 Open Championship victor Cam Smith, and last year’s U.S. Open titlist, Matt Fitzpatrick. They are a tasty study in contrasts—Rahm, a beast in every facet; Smith, world class on the greens; and Fitzy, the cerebral and gutty grinder whose skills came to full fruition last June at The Country Club. Pick a winner out of this group and you’re no fool.
By the way, we didn’t overlook the one other threesome in this parade of stars. Going off between the McIlroy and Rahm groups are major champions Jordan Spieth (unless his injured left wrist causes him to withdraw before Thursday) and Shane Lowry, along with one of the game’s best and hottest young players in Viktor Hovland.
For the first round, fans will have to be diligent in finding the mega groups in the early streaming coverage on ESPN+ (which begins at 7 a.m. ET) because ESPN TV goes on the air at 1 p.m. The groups will basically be done by then. But Friday figures to be the day to clock out early from work, with the stars playing all afternoon.
The nice guys
Pick a group for which you’d want to do beer and BBQ with and be treated like one of the guys, and this one is it: Adam Scott, Max Homa and Tony Finau, on TV plenty Thursday by starting at 1:36 p.m.
An Oak Hill champ gets buried
Shaun Micheel is best known for the 7-iron he striped to two inches on the 72nd hole in capturing his only major, the 2003 PGA Championship at Oak Hill. That didn’t buy the 54-year-old much respect in his return two decades later. Micheel has the crack-of-dawn first time at 7 a.m. with current PGA Tour Champions star Steven Alker and Pennsylvania teaching pro Braden Shattuck.
Can Phil and Rickie still create a buzz?
Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson walk together during the 2021 Rocket Mortgage Classic.
Mickelson and Fowler paired together a few years ago might have produced a squeal-and-swoon factor that was off the charts. Now, grouped with the talented but the stoic Cantlay, the trio of Californians are more a curiosity than the big show.
Will New York’s love for Lefty overcome his LIV Golf defection? Can Rickie truly contend in a major for the first time in five years? And will Cantlay, the World No. 4, finally get his act together in one of the Big Four. (Shockingly, he only has one top-10 finish in his last 14 majors starts).
Captain, can you spare a spot?
Is the PGA rooting for Adrian Meronk to play in September’s Ryder Cup? They certainly did the 6-foot-6 Polish native a favor by grouping him with current European captain Luke Donald. Not that they need much introduction, with Meronk just having captured the Italian Open on the Ryder Cup course. He’s all but a lock to make the squad, so this counts as bonding time now. Their third is another Euro, Germany’s Yannik Paul, who won in his rookie season on the DP World Tour last year and is right now an automatic qualifier for the European team off one of its two points lists.
Mum’s the word, except for Tyrrell
It’s a good thing Englishman Tyrrell Hatton talks so much to himself, because he’s probably not going to get much chatter from his playing partners, Dustin Johnson and Xander Schauffele. The latter two mostly let their games speak for themselves, and their current form easily puts them among the favorites. But for pure entertainment, we’ll take Hatton any day. The exasperated self-flagellation and droll club-flipping is so damn hilarious, the guy needs his own sub-channel.
The One-Timers Club
Winning a major is a career-defining feat, and for some, capturing one might be the most they can hope for. If that sounds harsh, we offer our sympathies to Webb Simpson, Danny Willett and Y.E. Yang, who are grouped together. They all scored rather out-of-the-blue major victories—Simpson in the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, Willett at the 2016 Masters, and Yang most notably outdueling Tiger Woods on Sunday in the 2009 PGA at Hazeltine. The latter is 51 years old now, while Willett and Simpson have drifted into the middle of their careers with hardly another sniff in the Big Four.
The One-Timers Club II
Bryson DeChambeau and Jason Day played the first two rounds together in the 2019 Masters.
There is another one-timers grouping, but this one carries a bit more cachet: Jason Day, Bryson DeChambeau and Keegan Bradley. Compelling figures all. Day just won for the first time in five years at the AT&T Byron Nelson, Bradley is a fidgety character who contends on occasion, and then there’s DeChambeau. Has anybody in recent times experienced a quicker fall from white-hot spotlight to existing merely on the fringes?
Less than three years ago, Bryson—who’s still only 29!—was the most talked-about player on the planet after overpowering Winged Foot to capture the pandemic-delayed U.S. Open. Now, while being very, very rich, he seems all but forgotten as a middling LIV Golf grinder. The record speaks for itself: In 12 total starts over two years on the Saudi-backed circuit, DeChambeau has three top-10s and has not come close to winning. In eight majors played since the Winged Foot triumph, there is one top-10, missed weekends in back-to-back Masters, and five other middling finishes.
And yet, having said all that, we’ve missed the Bryson Show, and if he happened to contend at Oak Hill, we’d be glued to every second of it.