Traditionally, the PGA Championship is the Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor of the majors – adorable, certainly, but hopelessly far down the line of succession, poor thing.
That never has been fair because the field for this tournament always is loaded. This year, for instance, 99 of the world’s top 100 players are expected to sally forth Thursday. Would have been a perfect 100 had Justin Thomas not withdrawn with a bum wrist.
This PGA Championship, however, has so much more meat on the bone than usual.
A PGA Tour schedule change designed to get golf off the stage before football muscles in meant that the PGA Championship cut in line this year, right behind the Masters. A May start for what has been the final major on the docket lends it all kinds of new energy.
Plus, because of the new schedule, the PGA is fortunate to be the next Tiger Woods sighting since his very loud Masters victory. Does he do encores? Does he remember which end of the club to hold? Everyone wants to know.
Plus, it all happens in New York, where, we are told, everything except college football just means more. The crowds at Bethpage Black are expected to be big and bawdy – relative to golf, of course – contributing a certain frenetic Times Square edge to the proceedings.
“You add all that in, and it’s the perfect storm for the Tour,” Bubba Watson told Golf.com. “The Tour couldn’t ask for it to be better. ... That’s why I think everybody is excited about it.”
As much as he ever has, Woods drives the interest in this week, this tournament. He no longer is the gravely wounded player on the cusp of a comeback – he comes into this one as the clear betting favorite (8-to-1, just ahead of a couple of 10-to-1 shots named Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson). He is a combined 32 under in his past three majors, with a win, a second and T-6th to show for it. He’s not just living on the stored fat of his reputation these days.
Woods has gone unseen since winning the Masters, and how much a month out of competition will affect him is bound to be a persistent question with him. After all, he’s playing with the spine of a 75-year-old retired human cannonball.
“I feel rested and ready,” he said in his pre-tournament presser Tuesday morning. “That's going to be the interesting part going forward; how much do I play and how much do I rest? I think I've done a lot of the legwork and the hard work already, trying to find my game over the past year and a half. Now I think it's just maintaining it. I know that I feel better when I'm fresh. The body doesn't respond like it used to, doesn't bounce back quite as well. So I've got to be aware of that.”
“I wanted to play a couple weeks ago, just wasn't quite mentally ready to do it,” he said. “But physically I've been feeling really good. The training sessions have been good. I've been doing a lot of practicing of late.”
Woods has won here before – like, duh, where hasn’t he won? Back in 2002 he was the only player to break par in the U.S. Open at Bethpage, a certain path to victory. Only five players broke par in the most recent Open there, 2009. A par-70 course that plays 7,400 yards is going to give up red numbers as grudgingly as a lion gives up its kill. That’s even if the USGA isn’t doing the course set-up, installing landmines and tripwires and whatnot.
So long and demanding is the place that former PGA champion John Daly, just 53 years old, but with a lot of hard miles on him, has been given permission to use a cart for as long as he is a distraction this week.
Woods take on that may be his best shot of the tournament. “I walked with a broken leg, so ...” he said, referring to the 2008 U.S. Open he won – after an 18-hole playoff – with, yes, a broken leg.
His overall view on the tournament and the venue was minus the wry ellipsis. And it pointedly underscored the potential of a PGA Championship that doesn’t need to offer a humble apology to any of the other majors.
“This is not only a big golf course, but this is going to be a long week the way the golf course is set up and potentially could play. This could be a hell of a championship,” Woods said, almost in the form of a promise.