Previewing the PGA: Can Tiger Really Do It Again?

May 14, 2019
Justin Ray

For the third time in less than twenty years, the infamous Bethpage Black, ominous sign and all, will host a men’s major championship. The 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage is the only major in which Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson finished first and second on the leaderboard. The 2009 U.S. Open, a week marred with weather delays, ultimately culminated in a wild Monday finish and Lucas Glover’s lone major win.

The 2019 PGA Championship is the first men’s professional major held in the month of May since the 1949 PGA at Hemitage Country Club in Virginia. That week, Sam Snead defeated Johnny Palmer in a Tuesday final, 3 and 2.

While new scheduling and an exciting venue made this PGA Championship an interesting one years in advance, the player-related storylines truly push it into another stratosphere of excitement. Will Brooks Koepka continue his remarkable run in the majors? Can Francesco Molinari rebound from Masters Sunday heartbreak? Can Jordan Spieth complete the career grand slam? Oh, and not to mention – is the race to 19 majors back on for Masters winner Tiger Woods?

 

TIGER RETURNS TO BETHPAGE

In 2002, Tiger Woods came to the U.S. Open at Bethpage as the reigning Masters champion and world’s number one player. His lead over world number two Phil Mickelson was nearly six-and-a-half average points; the gap between Woods and Mickelson was the same as the separation Lefty had over world number 41 Jesper Parnevik.

Tiger has already won multiple major championships at three different venues: Augusta National, Medinah and St. Andrews. With a win at Bethpage, he can accomplish something he’s never actually done in his career: win the Masters and PGA Championship in the same season. The last player to do that was Jack Nicklaus in 1975.

Speaking of Jack, his 76th career major championship start as a professional came at the 1980 PGA Championship, held in New York, at Oak Hill. Jack won his 17th professional major that week. Incredibly, this week is Tiger Woods’ 76th major as a pro, and it comes at a PGA, in New York.

TW Jack 76th Pro Major

This was the third season of Woods’ career in which he entered the month of May leading the PGA Tour in greens in regulation percentage. The other two times it happened were in 2002 and 2008 – in both of those instances, he won the season’s second major held, the U.S. Open. Of course, 2002’s U.S. Open was held at Bethpage Black.

This will be the seventh time in Tiger’s professional career that he has made a start in a major without playing anywhere since the previous major championship held. The previous instance came in 2013, when Woods didn’t play between the U.S. Open and Open Championship. He finished tied for sixth that week at Muirfield. Twice, Tiger has won doing this: at the 1999 PGA Championship and 2008 U.S. Open.

To expect 43-year-old Woods to morph back into the streaking comet of brilliance he was in his 20s and early 30s is tempting, but probably fool-hearted. Julius Boros and Old Tom Morris are the only two players in men’s golf history to win multiple majors (by their modern definition) at age 43 or older, and nobody has ever done it in the same season. The oldest player to win more than one major in a year was Mark O’Meara in 1998, who won The Masters and The Open Championship at 41 years old.

But after the last few miraculous months for Woods, it’s a guilty-yet-understandable pleasure to entertain the possibilities. If Tiger were to win the PGA Championship this week, it would be the sixth different instance of Woods winning consecutive majors contested. Ben Hogan is the only other player in the modern era to do it more than once, doing it on three separate occasions.

 

ON TOP OF THE WORLD

If it feels like golf has had a long run of majors without an ‘out-of-nowhere’ winner, you’re right. Each of the last 29 major champions have been ranked inside the top-50 in the world. The last winner from outside the top-50 was Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA Championship, when he entered Atlanta Athletic Club ranked 108th. This is by far the longest streak of top-50 major winners we have seen since the World Ranking began in 1986: before this run, the most consecutive majors won by players ranked in the top-50 was 14, back in the early-to-mid ‘90s.

To take it a step further: 18 of the last 19 major winners were ranked in the top-25 at the time, the lone exception being Jimmy Walker at the 2016 PGA (ranked 48th). Could Bethpage yield a champion from further back in the pack? It happened the last time a major championship was held here: Lucas Glover was ranked 71st entering his 2009 U.S. Open victory.

 

PLAYERS HEADLINING THE FIELD

– Brooks Koepka is averaging 2.87 strokes gained per round in majors since the beginning of 2017. There are 87 players with at least 15 rounds played in major championships during that span – of that group, Koepka is more than half-a-stroke better per round than anyone else (Rickie Fowler is second, at 2.36). For more on Brooks Koepka’s recent major championship brilliance, check this out.

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– While gym-rat brethren Brooks flew into The Masters unheralded, it seems DJ is playing that role this week, despite being the sitting world number one and coming off a tie for second at Augusta National. The last time we saw DJ, he held the 54-hole lead at Harbour Town, but a closing 77 dropped him into a tie for 28th. One statistic you may not be aware of: Johnson is currently 5th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting. His best ever finish for a season in that category is 25th, which he did last season.

– Despite his Masters disappointment last month, Rory McIlroy enters the PGA playing arguably the best golf of his career. McIlroy has made nine worldwide starts this year, and his only finish outside the top-ten came at Augusta National. Rory is one of just two European players to win the PGA Championship more than once (2012 and 2014); Jim Barnes did it in 1916 and 1919.

– As McIlroy prepares to play the first major in his 30s, it’s worth taking stock of what he did over the previous decade. Since the beginning of 2009, Rory leads all players in the majors in top 5s (12), top 10s (18), rounds under par (76), rounds in the 60s (50), birdies/eagles made (543), and of course, wins (four).

PGA Champs 6

– Francesco Molinari had only four bogeys or worse at The Masters, tying the mark for fewest by any player in a single Masters over the last thirty years (Steve Stricker also made just four back in 2009). Over the last three majors contested, Molinari is averaging just 1.42 bogeys or worse per round – by far the best of any player in that span with at least eight rounds played. Webb Simpson is second on that list at 1.83 per round.

– While Molinari, Koepka and Woods have claimed the last three major championships played, one young star has quietly been inching towards his major breakthrough. Jon Rahm is a combined 21-under in the last two majors after finishing tied for fourth at the ’18 PGA and tied for ninth at last month’s Masters. The only two players with a better cumulative score to par than Rahm in those two majors are Koepka (-28) and Woods (-27). Molinari is tied with Rahm at 21-under.

– Two of Phil Mickelson’s eleven career runner-up finishes in majors have come at the PGA Championship. Four of them have come in the state of New York, including both times he’s played at Bethpage – 2002 and 2009. Mickelson is one of two players with a combined score under par (-2) in the previous two U.S. Opens at Bethpage, along with Woods (minimum six rounds played). Phil is an immense crowd favorite everywhere he goes but should be especially so this week in New York.