PGA Championship - Final Round
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Not since World War II has golf gone this long without a major championship. From when Shane Lowry won The Open at Royal Port Rush on July 21, 2019, until the first ball is struck Thursday in the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park, 382 days will have passed without one of golf’s Grand Slam events. This week, golf is back in a major way.

While spectators will not be on hand in San Francisco, millions will watch on TV and, as is always the case at the PGA Championship, they will see one of the strongest fields in golf including the four current major champions.

In addition to Lowry, the other winners in 2019 were Tiger Woods at the Masters, Gary Woodland at the U.S. Open and Brooks Koepka, whose win in the PGA at Bethpage Black matched the feat by Woods when he won in back-to-back years in 1999-00 and 2006-07.

If Koepka successfully defends the Wanamaker Trophy again, he will be second only to Walter Hagen, who won the title four years in a row (1924-27) when it was a match play, for most consecutive victories. Koepka clearly plays his best golf in the majors, having also corralled back-to-back U.S. Open titles in 2017-18, making four of his seven PGA Tour wins majors.

Also among the top contenders are several past PGA winners. Rory McIlroy (2012, ‘14) and Justin Thomas (2017) join Koepka in that group. If Jordan Spieth wins, he’d complete the career Grand Slam at the age of 27. Looking for their first major are world No. 1 Jon Rahm, long-hitting Bryson DeChambeau, long-haired Tommy Fleetwood, long-suffering Rickie Fowler and Sungjae Im, the 22-year-old sensation from South Korea.

After Jim Barnes won the inaugural PGA in 1916, World War I forced postponement in 1917 and ’18. Since then, the only year without the PGA was 1943, at the height of World War II, when none of the majors were played. But COVID-19 moved the Masters to November, the U.S. Open to September and canceled The Open. The virus pushed the PGA from May to August.

In Harding Park, the PGA has a classic design laid out in 1925 by Sam Whiting and Willie Watson, architects of the Olympic Club, which sits across Lake Merced. The course, where Ken Venturi and Johnny Miller played junior golf, was a fixture on the PGA Tour for years until it fell on hard times late last century. But a concerted community effort restored the jewel to its former glory – and more.

A municipal course named after President Warren G. Harding, an avid golfer, it is owned by San Francisco and became part of the PGA Tour’s Tournament Players Club a decade ago. It has since been the site of two World Golf Championship events (2005 and ’15) and the 2009 Presidents Cup.

For Woods, there are good memories at TPC Harding Park. He won the 2005 WGC event and was 5-0 in the Presidents Cup. A victory would be major win No. 16, two shy of the record by Jack Nicklaus, and PGA Championship No. 5, matching the record held by Nicklaus and Walter Hagen. It would also be PGA Tour career win No. 83, moving Woods past Sam Snead to No. 1.  

Twenty years removed from his electrifying playoff win over Bob May in the 2000 PGA – his third major triumph of the year – Woods protects a 44-year-old body that has hit a lot of golf balls and endured multiple surgeries to both his back and left knee. A T-40 finish at The Memorial in July is Tiger’s only competitive effort in the last six months.

When he announced he would skip last week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational in Memphis, Woods said he was “doing what I think is best to prepare for the PGA Championship.”

While Woods relishes competition, it is also clear he’s at the stage of his career where winning major championships – and stalking Nicklaus – is his top priority.

“I competed and played again,'' he said after The Memorial, which is hosted by Nicklaus. “It's been a while,” he said after his first effort since February. “But it was good to get the feel and the flow of competing again.”

Like Woods, Koepka comes into the PGA Championship chasing history with a third consecutive win. And like Woods, Brooks is not 100 percent since undergoing a stem-cell treatment on his left knee last fall. Although he says it's not serious enough for surgery, it has affected his training.

“Yeah, it will get sore if I beat balls long enough, and I've had some lengthy range sessions over the past two weeks where it's been five-plus hours," Koepka said last week. “I'll come back, I'll ice it, yeah. It limits what I can do. Can't do much cardio. But it's definitely changed a lot of things for me, that's for sure.”

Last year, Koepka won his second consecutive PGA Championship by two strokes over Dustin Johnson at Bethpage, becoming the first to successfully defend both the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open. In doing so, he was both superhuman and very human – brilliantly at both.

Koepka opened with a PGA Championship record 63. His second-round 65 gave him the lowest 36-hole score in major championship history and, at seven strokes, the largest 36-hole lead in a PGA Championship. An even-par par 70 in the third round kept his advantage at seven going into Sunday.

Perhaps because he heard the lumbering footsteps of hard-charging Dustin Johnson – or simply because it’s difficult to play your best four days in a row in a major – Koepka wobbled. A birdie on No. 10 kept his lead at six despite an outgoing 32 by DJ, but Brooks, who had just five bogeys in 64 holes, boarded the bogey train on No. 11 and did not get off until four holes later.

When Koepka stepped to the 15th tee the lead was a single stroke. “I wasn’t nervous,” he said. “I was shocked.” Adding fuel to his fire, as he walked off the 14th green, the rambunctious New York crowd chanted: “DJ, DJ!”

But the ever-present chip on Koepka’s shoulder seems to give him balance. Slights – real and imagined, from friend, foe or media – push him toward greatness. The most crucial shot of the tournament – his drive on No. 15 – soared 350 yards and split the fairway into equal parts. Suddenly, all was right in Koepka world.

“I think it helped me,” Koepka said about the chants. “I deserved it. I was half-choking it away. I’m a sports fan. I know how New York crowds are,” he added with a wry smile.

“I was glad there weren’t any more holes to play,” he said after closing with a 74 on a day when Bethpage was at its brutish best. “That was probably the happiest I’ve ever been.”

What fans saw in 2019 — the first year of the PGA move to May — was unforgettable. For 64 holes, Koepka was unbeatable. Then he reminded us that near-perfection is more beautiful than perfection because it is attainable.

That point has been driven home in 2020. Struggle makes us stronger. Facing challenges unlike any since World War II played through, a less-than-perfect world seeks to regain its balance. When the majors return at the PGA Championship, golf will be doing its part. Never has the first major of the year meant so much.

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