By Rory Carroll
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Two former world number ones will play alongside the game's freshly crowned top player when Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas go out as a group in the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park this week.
Woods, who has played once since the PGA Tour resumed in June, is seeking his 16th major and fifth PGA Championship title but the 44-year-old is an underdog given concerns about how his surgically repaired back will react to the cool San Francisco weather.
World number three McIlroy won his fourth major six years ago and has said quarantine gave him the chance to focus on again winning the sport's biggest prizes, starting with the PGA Championship followed by the U.S. Open and Masters in the fall.
Thomas comes into the tournament as the hottest commodity in golf, having won three events this year including the FedEx St Jude Invitational on Sunday to regain the top spot, which he held for four weeks in 2018.
He is one of the early favourites to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy for a second time after taking the title in 2017.
Another star-studded group comprises twice defending champion Brooks Koepka, last year's U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland and the 2019 British Open winner Irishman Shane Lowry.
Jordan Spieth, who could complete a career grand slam by adding a PGA Championship, will play alongside ex-world number one Dustin Johnson and 2016 Olympic gold medalist Justin Rose.
The first major of the year, originally scheduled for May before the COVID-19 pandemic hit sports, will play out at the challenging municipal course known for its towering Cypress trees, thick rough, narrow fairways and cool coastal fog in the summer months.
The tournament will take place without fans due to the novel coronavirus.
(Reporting by Rory Carroll; Editing by Ken Ferris)