The second major championship of the year has arrived, and despite a field that lacks some momentum at the top going into this tournament, there are still some outstanding storylines (as always) for the 2021 PGA Championship. There's plenty to look forward to this week as the PGA returns to the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island after a nine-year hiatus.
Rory McIlroy has won just two more majors since that romp in 2012 (if you had under 2.5, congratulations on somehow hitting that), and he is once again playing best-player-in-the-world kind of golf coming in. He won his last start at the Wells Fargo Championship two weeks ago and has emerged as the somewhat-surprising favorite to run it back this week at Kiawah.
McIlroy is one of a handful of interesting player narratives leading into what should be an awesome week. Kiawah is a curious course, and gallery sizes are starting to swell. Oh yeah, the career grand slam is again on the line this week with somebody who might currently be the No. 1 player on the planet.
Let's take a look at all of those storylines and more as the PGA Championship gets underway later this week.
Watch the 2021 PGA Championship beginning Thursday with Rounds 3-4 streaming live over the weekend on CBSSports.com, the CBS Sports App and Paramount+. Check out the updated PGA Championship schedule for how to watch the year's second major all week long.
1. Spieth's slam: Since Jan. 1, nobody in the world has played better golf than Jordan Spieth. He has one PGA Tour victory to show for it, but if you're a strokes-gained nerd (like me), then you know another one may be coming. There are just two golfers who are averaging over 2.0 strokes gained per round this calendar year: Spieth at 2.2 and Daniel Berger at 2.1. Spieth comes in off a nice top 10 at the AT&T Byron Nelson (where he did not putt well) and will make his fifth run at the career grand slam. Only five golfers have ever done it, and other than 2017 when Spieth went to Quail Hollow fresh off his Open Championship win at Royal Birkdale, this is by far his best chance to join them.
2. Where art thou, D.J.? Conversely, since Jan. 1, Dustin Johnson -- still the No. 1 player in the world -- has a worse strokes-gained number than Cameron Tringale, Chris Kirk, Charley Hoffman and Abraham Ancer. He does not have a top 10 since the Genesis Invitational in February, missed the cut at the Masters and is coming into this week after a late withdrawal from last week's AT&T Byron Nelson. Johnson is the most likely player in the field to flip a switch at the last minute and win a tournament by five, but beware of a game that's not exactly been in form for the last few months.
3. Monster galleries: Though galleries at golf tournaments are not back to their normal robustness, it would be difficult to tell if you've been watching for the last month. Setting aside the legitimate concerns for those in attendance, it's certainly a great thing for the events themselves as well as for the stars involved. We did not talk about it a ton, but it's not a coincidence that Rory McIlroy, who struggled in a fan-less world, won the loudest (and possibly most-attended) event since the pandemic started at the Wells Fargo two weeks ago. He and a handful of others will thrive on the lathered-up galleries in attendance at Kiawah.
4. Embarrassment of riches: I've heard Jim Nantz talk about this on multiple occasions, and it's something I was thinking and writing about nine months ago as well. We're smack in the middle of a run of seven major championships in a 12-month stretch in which somebody has the ability to win a career's worth of majors. Nobody has doubled up yet -- Collin Morikawa, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson and Hideki Matsuyama are your current champs in that 12-month stretch -- but if one of them does at Kiawah, we will almost certainly remember this two-year run for what that golfer did at the seven majors that were played.
5. Nasty Kiawah? I'm not saying the Ocean Course will be a monster, only that it could be. When McIlroy won in 2012, he finished at 13 under but nobody else was better than 5 under, and this is on a course that played to a par 72. If they pushed that number down, you would've had just one player under par. The key -- as with most oceanside courses -- is the wind. It howled in the second round in 2012, and 74 or 75 was a great score. If it does not howl like that this year then sure, we could see the traditional PGA Championship scores. But if it does, then the volcano-like green complexes, jutted-out water hazards and insane length of Kiawah (it will play nearly 7,900 yards) should mean that the 1991 Ryder Cup is not the only War on the Shore at this golf course.
6. First-time king: Maybe I'm the only one who cares this much about this particular storyline, but I'm always intrigued by which golfers can lift themselves into the one-major club with a win. Following three of four first-time winners in this seven major stretch, the biggest names that can join them are Berger, Jon Rahm, Xander Schauffele, Viktor Hovland, Patrick Cantlay and Tony Finau. You could also throw in Ancer, Will Zalatoris, Paul Casey, Tyrrell Hatton and Matthew Fitzpatrick, all ranked in the 30 in the world and all without a major championship win.
7. Battered Brooks: Brooks Koepka has owned this tournament over the last five years. He lost to 19 total golfers from 2015-19, winning two PGAs in that span of time before backing down the board in the final round at TPC Harding Park in August when Morikawa went on to win. Koepka finished T29 after flirting with the lead late on Saturday afternoon last fall, but T29 might be a herculean ask this week. His torn-up knee has not allowed him to squat down and read putts, which seems, you know, fairly important when it comes to major championship golf. It's extremely unlikely that he wins the golf tournament this week, but given his pedigree and recent success at majors (four wins in his last 13 tries), he always has to be considered a threat.
8. Length an extreme advantage? DeChambeau and his, uh, unusual training methods and routines have been a storyline all year, and they should be this week at lengthy Kiawah. However, I'm curious to see if a place like Kiawah with water lurking all over the track, somehow neuters what DeChambeau (who has a bad proximity from the middle of the fairway number) is trying to do. This is a golf course you could overpower, but you'll have to do it in a smart, strategic way like McIlroy did back in 2012. The leaderboard was crazy diverse in 2012 (which is awesome) with David Lynn, Keegan Bradley, Carl Pettersson, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose and Jamie Donaldson sliding in behind McIlroy. I don't think there's just one type of game that fits here at Kiawah.
9. Pete Dye's boy: Maybe the quietest star coming into the week is Justin Thomas, who has been the second-best iron player in the world so far in 2021 and won earlier this year on one of Dye's other masterpieces, TPC Sawgrass. There could be some interesting parallels there, and Thomas' iron play should carry the day at Kiawah on these greens that are often difficult to hold onto. He's not flying in under the radar completely, but there is a sense that nobody is talking about him as much as they should be.
10. Rory, Rory, Rory: It's his tournament to lose. He is unlikely to win it because everyone is unlikely to win out of a field this size, but after winning Quail Hollow and with the way he has dominated not only the Ocean Course but also PGA Championships in general over the past decade, you have to imagine everyone believes the tournament runs through him. If he wins it, he will become just the 13th golfer with 20 PGA Tour victories, including five major championships. I believe you have heard of the other 12.