7 burning questions leading into the 105th PGA Championship at Oak Hill
PITTSFORD, N.Y. – With temperatures barely creeping out of the 40s, players made their final preparations for the PGA Championship on Wednesday wearing ski caps, mittens and at least three layers.
Welcome to western New York in mid-May.
Famed Oak Hill Country Club is getting its third major showcase in the past 20 years, this time with the date change that could make things even more unpredictable than usual. Jason Dufner was ranked 21st in the world when he put on a sharpshooting clinic here in 2013 that led to his lone major title. Shaun Micheel had much longer odds for his unlikely breakthrough in ’03 – the world No. 169’s goal that week was simply to make the cut.
Full-field tee times from the PGA Championship
The way that Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler are playing – plus the inspired play recently of Tony Finau and Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay and Max Homa and Cameron Young and … – it seems more likely than ever that we’ll get a clash of in-form alphas in their athletic primes.
Here are the questions that are top of mind entering the week at the PGA Championship:
WHAT’S RORY MCILROY GOING TO DO THIS WEEK?
Which Rory shows up this week at Oak Hill:
The one who, on the eve of the Masters, was striking it so beautifully and was so clear minded that he absolutely knew he’d play well at Augusta? (Narrator: He did not.)
Or is it the one who glumly spoke to the media here Tuesday, detailing his ongoing swing battle to eliminate a two-way miss and talking about lowering expectations?
Yep, much can change in the course of five weeks.
The PGA in general, and Oak Hill in particular, always seemed like a perfect fit for McIlroy. And maybe it still will be – his entire game is predicated on how he drives the ball, and the tree-lined track puts a significant emphasis on placement off the tee. But what has limited McIlroy so far this year has been his putter. Currently, he ranks 172nd on Tour in strokes gained: putting – a far cry from his career-best season last year (20th).
Rory McIlroy sounds like he's tired of discussing LIV and ready to focus on golf
Drilling down further, he’s outside the top 175 from the 10- to 15-foot range, as well as from 15 to 20 feet – problematic, of course, because that’s where many of his birdie putts come from. It’s impossible to build momentum, or fire low scores, without pouring in those attempts with any sort of frequency. (A year ago, for reference, he was inside the top 10 in both categories.)
Someone of McIlroy’s caliber is never far from a turnaround – a swing key, a holed putt, a fortuitous break – but an almighty stress-fest at Oak Hill isn’t exactly a welcome sight for a player searching for confidence with his swing and on the greens.
WHO HAS THE EDGE THIS WEEK: JON RAHM OR SCOTTIE SCHEFFLER?
Um, how about …both?
With McIlroy skidding, these two have separated themselves by more than just their world ranking. They’ve been so ruthlessly efficient and relentlessly consistent that it’d be a genuine surprise if one didn’t play well this week at a place that’s going to protect par. That sort of challenge is a perfect match for their respective skill sets and mindsets; Rahm won the 2021 U.S. Open while Scheffler has been in the top 7 in each of the last two editions of golf’s toughest test. They’re always up for it.
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A four-time winner this season, including the Masters, Rahm took two weeks off after a valiant title defense in Mexico. In recent years, only Tiger Woods in 1999 has enjoyed a better start to a Tour season.
Scheffler shot 20 under last week in Dallas and has failed to break par in just four rounds all year. The Players champ hasn’t placed worse than 12th since last October.
“I’m confident,” Rahm said. “I feel good.”
“Feeling good,” Scheffler said. “My game feels like it’s in a good spot.”
Fingers crossed these two powerhouses go head-to-head over the weekend.
WHICH LIV PLAYERS WILL STEP UP?
Fair or not, the Masters felt like a referendum for the entire LIV concept: the players, the schedule, the offseason, the competition. That the rival leaguers accounted for three of the top six on the Sunday leaderboard quieted (at least temporarily) the critics who thought these players’ best days were behind them.
By sheer numbers alone, the odds of another stacked board are unlikelier here at the PGA: There are only 16 LIV players in the 156-man field (compared to 18 of 88 at Augusta), after both Martin Kaymer and Paul Casey bowed out with injury. Fewer still would seem to have a realistic chance to contend, given the severity of the examination here at Oak Hill.
Dustin Johnson is coming off a win last week in Tulsa, his first of the season since suffering a back injury earlier this year. Brooks Koepka, the 54-hole leader at the Masters, has played consistently well for the past two months. Cameron Smith and Patrick Reed will relish the tougher conditions that can highlight their brilliant short games.
PGA CEO Waugh: Not a battle with LIV Golf
When asked Wednesday if there’s any added pressure to represent, or wave the LIV flag at majors, DJ said: “To me, I don’t need to keep proving myself. I already have for many years; same with all the other guys. It’s just where we play at. It doesn’t change the style of golfer we are.”
Given PGA CEO Seth Waugh’s consistently critical comments of the Saudi-backed circuit – that it is both unsustainable and inferior – it could make for a deliciously awkward handshake on Sunday evening.
WHAT’S JORDAN SPIETH’S STATUS?
He’s good to go!
Spieth spoke to a few reporters after a nine-hole practice round Wednesday and confirmed that he’ll play, giving us one more storyline to salivate over: He is a PGA victory away from completing the career Grand Slam.
His participation seemed very much in doubt after his statement nine days ago that he experienced “severe” pain in his left wrist and considered himself “week to week” in his recovery. But he began to ramp up last weekend without setbacks, logged a 70-minute practice session and nine holes on Tuesday, and then got through another nine holes on Wednesday, lashing out of the rough with no immediate concerns of reaggravation.
What remains to be seen is how effective Spieth will be after just 18 holes of preparation. He missed the cut in his only other appearance at Oak Hill in 2013, in his first year on Tour. He hasn’t finished better than 30th in his last three PGA appearances, but his form prior to the injury suggested that this was his best chance yet to knock off the fourth and final leg of the Slam.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM OAK HILL?
The storied track is hosting a major for the first time in a decade, and the Oak Hill of today bears little resemblance to the one that Dufner dissected back in 2013.
Thanks to Andrew Green, the layout was restored in 2019 to Donald Ross’ original design. That means hundreds of trees have been removed. The greens, rounded over time, have been redone to create interesting complexes with severe runoffs. The bunkers have been dramatically reshaped.
And the rough? Oh, it’s thick. It isn’t so much the long, tangly, gnarly rough we’ve been conditioned to expect at a U.S. Open-like test. But it’s so dense, and the ball sinks so quickly to the bottom, that even the strongest players might not be able to muscle anything more than an 8-iron onto the putting surfaces.
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In August 2013, when Dufner won at 10 under, it was the lowest score to par in the history of an Oak Hill major. It’s hard to envision that total being approached this week at a course that has been described as a brute, as stout, and as a cross between Winged Foot and Bethpage Black.
IS IT GONNA SNOW?
Well, it sure feels like it at times, with the low temperatures Wednesday in the 30s and a brisk wind making the feels-like temps hover in the 40s for much of the final practice round.
A frost delay is possible early Thursday – the low is 33 – but the forecast for the rest of the week should, shockingly, be fine.
A high of 80 on Friday. A high of 62 on Saturday, with showers possible and gusty conditions. That’s Rochester in May for you.
All things considered, PGA officials have to be thrilled with what has transpired so far. The course has been presented beautifully after ideal growing conditions this spring. And the weather, for the most part, has cooperated this week.
“That’s sort of the fun of golf,” said Kerry Haigh, the PGA’s chief championships officer. “It’s an outdoor game, and we can’t wait to see what Mother Nature brings as well.”
WHAT IS THIS CHAMPIONSHIP’S IDENTITY?
Pour one out for Glory’s Last Shot, for the PGA is no longer that. It’s the fourth time that the PGA has been held in May – in 2020 it was returned to August, however briefly, because of the COVID-19 pandemic – and the tournament is still looking to differentiate itself among its major brethren.
The Masters has all of the mystique and the pomp and the intrigue from months of buildup. The U.S. Open is the (kinder, gentler) slobber-knocker meant to push players to the breaking point. The Open is a glorious return to the game’s linksy roots – with a 30-mph wet wind to boot.
Key storylines: PGA Championship at Oak Hill
But the PGA?
“I feel like having it be the last major of the year maybe just gave it a little bit better of something that it doesn’t quite have right now,” McIlroy said.
What it does have right now – indisputably – is the strongest major field of the year.
Ninety-nine of the top 100 in the world are here – Will Zalatoris is out indefinitely after back surgery – with other special invitations filling out a 156-man field that also includes 20 club professionals. Major field criteria is a hot-button topic at the moment, but it doesn’t feel as though anyone of significance is missing. If you’re a player of consequence at the elite level, you’re here, and that’s a powerful advantage.
Zach Johnson is playing his 20th PGA, and he summed up the tournament’s essence as well as anyone we’ve heard this week:
“This championship is just extremely proper,” he said. “We play really good, classic golf courses that have also been nuanced to make it more modern. What I appreciate about it is they’re not afraid to go to every corner of this great nation. It’s different every year.
“This one really takes on a new being every year, and I love that. The consistency is that there’s inconsistency in where we go, and I love that.”