2019 PGA Championship: 10 storylines to follow at Bethpage, starting with Tiger Woods
From Tiger's 16th to Rory's fifth, here's a look at what we'll be looking at this week in New York
Major No. 2 of the 2018-19 PGA Tour season is on deck, and it's another gem. This year's PGA Championship will take place at Bethpage Black, which has hosted two U.S. Opens and two FedEx Cup Playoff events but never a PGA Championship previously.
Oh, and in case you have not yet noticed, this year's event is being played in May instead of August. There are storylines stacked on storylines this week as the winner of the last major played -- the 2019 Masters -- once again takes center stage.
1. Tiger Woods gets No. 16: The numbers look odd on my screen. For so many years -- my entire career of covering golf -- I've been writing something like, "Tiger Woods has 14 majors. If he wins another major, he will be at 15. He needs four more to tie Jack Nicklaus and five to pass him." Now somebody has scrambled the knobs on the CB radio, and all the numbers look foreign to me. Regardless, Woods has previously had a ton of success at Bethpage with a win in 2002 at the U.S. Open and a top 10 at the 2009 U.S. Open in which he lost by four to Lucas Glover. If he starts 2019 with back-to-back major wins, Tiger's green jacket might start looking like that of a lieutenant general for how many awards Donald Trump is going to give him.
2. Brooks Koepka's bridge: We're at a fascinating place with Koepka. He has a chance to elevate himself into a legit, "Wait, is this one of the best golfers of the past 30 years?" conversation if he wins one of the next few majors. A win this week would mean he holds four of the past eight he has played, and one of those other ones was a T2 at the Masters. However, because he doesn't have the PGA Tour resume to fall back on (he only has two other wins), there's a sense that if he doesn't load up on majors that he'll get a little bit lost when we talk about superstars of this generation. For example: When you think of great players, you certainly think of Dustin Johnson well before Koepka even though Koepka has three times as many majors. That middle ground is fascinating, especially given how Koepka elevates his game at the four big ones.
3. Jordan Spieth's Slam: We talk so much about Rory McIlroy and Augusta and Phil Mickelson and the U.S. Open that we often forget that Spieth is also one major away from joining the most exclusive major club in golf. Spieth finished T10 at this course in 2016 when his good pal Patrick Reed won The Barclays, but he has labored for most of 2019 and dropped all the way to No. 39 in the world, below Matthew Fitzpatrick and within a few spots of Lucas Bjerregaard. Signs do not point to a Spieth Slam, but maybe that's precisely what he needs to join a group that includes Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen and Gary Player.
Black Lite? The brawler will play as a par 71 this year, the same number it played at both of the Barclays it hosted and one higher than both of the U.S. Opens. The overall scores in those four championships were 274 (2012 Barclays), 275 (2016 Barclays), 276 (2009 U.S. Open) and 277 (2002 U.S. Open). Even when it hasn't been tricked up by USGA, it's still played to the same number more or less. Still, Bethpage hasn't been maybe as tough as everyone thinks. The winning score at Augusta National this year was 275, which is right in the middle of where it's been at Bethpage historically. Don't let the number to par fool you.
5. Breakthrough winners: This is a storyline at pretty much every major, but the list of terrific golfers who have come close but not yet won the big one is stacking up. In the last three seasons, Koepka leads the PGA Tour with five top 10s at majors, but a group of Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Xander Schauffele, Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler is just behind him with four. Of that crew, only McIlroy and Molinari have won majors, and Molinari hasn't even celebrated the one-year anniversary of his. Does that mean the rest are simply bridesmaids or are we on the doorstep to a signature win for one of them?
6. American … dominance? Americans have won seven of the last eight major championships, which is a nearly unparalleled run of success in the modern era for the stars and stripes. The lone international flag among all of that red, white and blue is Molinari's Italian number. Before that, you have to go back to Sergio Garcia's victory at Augusta at the beginning of 2017. For all their failure in the Ryder Cup, these Americans -- all of whom played in the Ryder Cup -- have destroyed at the big four.
7. Lefty's nervous: Phil Mickelson has missed the last two PGA Championship cuts and doesn't have a top 10 at any major since his runner up to Henrik Stenson at the 2016 Open. "I missed the cut by quite a few [at the Wells Fargo Championship recently], but the reason I thought it was going to be such a good week was I started to play really well," Mickelson said recently on SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio. "Now, I'm nervous going into the PGA Championship with this being my most recent performance. I'm not excited about a missed cut, a week off, and then going into a major. That's not the best way to do it." I do not feel confident!
8. May movement: After we got Tiger changing wardrobe at every portable toilet on the course at Bellerive last year, we're in for a much more temperate event this time around. With the move to May coinciding with a PGA in New York, temperatures aren't likely to rise even into the 70s over the course of this four-day tournament. That means you'll hear a lot of, "The ball just isn't going as far as it does when it's hot," and Tiger will only need two shirts (one for his workout and one for his round) instead of 10. Whether this materially affects the event itself, who knows, but it's certainly going to be a talking point throughout the week.
9. Rory McIlroy at 30: The best player on the planet this year has been ... Rory. He's first on the PGA Tour in strokes gained, first in top 10 percentage, and he has the second-biggest victory of the season at the Players Championship. He has been a destroyer of worlds at PGA Championships in the past, but he also doesn't have a top 10 at one since winning Valhalla in 2014. McIlroy turned 30 between the Masters and PGA Championship, and he knows he has a chance to become the greatest non-American golfer of all time with a repeat decade in his 30s that he had in his 20s. A win at Bethpage to tie Mickelson with five majors would be a pretty nice first step.
10. Francesco Molinari, maestro: The quietest killer in golf wears Nike up and down his body, but he did not win the Masters and he did not win the Players and he did not win last year's PGA Championship. No, the silent assassin is Molinari, the reigning Open champion and a man who finished T6 at last year's PGA and T2 at the one before it. He has twice as many top 10s at majors in his last six played as he did in his first 32, and yet, when it comes to major picking time, we still -- for reasons unknown -- forget about him. A win here would mean he holds two of the four, and make him pretty much impossible to ignore.
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