PGA Championship - Preview Day 3
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SAN FRANCISCO – The 102nd PGA Championship is upon us, and promises to be different. For that, PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh says there will be no apologies. 

“We’re going to celebrate what we’ve got,” Waugh said ahead of Thursday’s start to the PGA Championship at Harding Park. “…All other sports are struggling, and so we have both an incredible opportunity, but also an obligation I think to do this, and without the Olympics and all sorts of things being canceled, this takes on a whole other level of importance.”

The first PGA Championship contested on the West Coast since 1998 (since Sahalee, in Washington) has all the ingredients to be grand. It has a history-chaser in gritty Brooks Koepka, who will try to become the first player in nearly a century to win three consecutive PGA Championships. It has Tiger Woods, who went to school just down the road at Stanford, seeking a record-tying fifth PGA title, and resuming his quest to catch Jack Nicklaus’ once-distant total of 18 majors. It has a former champion in Justin Thomas competing as the No. 1 player in the world again. It has Rory McIlroy trying to land his first major since 2014, and many younger players trying to break through. 

This PGA also features a venue that players have lauded as better than advertised. Tough but fair. A beautifully manicured TPC Harding Park with narrowed fairways and dense, seaweed-thick rough to go along with firming greens. This PGA Championship staged in the Covid-19 era marks the starting blocks for a historic, one-time run for golf – in an 11-month span, players will compete in seven major championships. 

“The golf courses we’re playing, this is a big-boy golf course, we're going to Winged Foot (U.S. Open, September) and then we're going to Augusta (Masters), which we've never seen in November,” said 2019 U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland. “It'll be different. Next year will probably be a little more familiar when you get Augusta starting the year in April. But this will be different. This (TPC Harding Park) is some big-boy golf course, and you'd better be geared up and hitting good golf shots because there's a lot of trouble out there.”

The PGA Championship will be staged without fans, and with 156 players and caddies being tested and staying “inside the bubble” to make sure everyone remains healthy. Just staging a tournament took the support of the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, and San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed, and the PGA Tour, which has played eight events after a 90-day pause. Not to mention lots and lots of trepidation, and ultimately, good faith to move forward.

“We had a drop-dead date of June locking hands and jumping off the bridge together,”Waugh said, “and here we are.”

Kerry Haigh, who has been setting up the course at the PGA Championship for 30 years, made adjustments with every Zoom call and Covid-19 update. There was a plan with spectators, and then a Plan B without any. Vendors who were building grandstands were told to halt work. Corporate tents don’t line the fairways. Some already standing facilities were repurposed. What was to be the golf shop became an expansive locker room, with player lockers spaced 10 feet apart. The proposed locker room became a makeshift media center. Normal media attendance for a major championship eclipses 1,000, from all corners of the world. This week, there are fewer than 50 writers and photographers on site, a majority from the U.S. 

The driving mantra of operation, though, never has deviated. Different doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Haigh and others exuded great energy and enthusiasm to think outside the norm and to make the most of what they had. Haigh had a difficult time on Wednesday hiding his excitement. 

“I've done it for 30 years, but this could be the most challenging, most unique, but hopefully the most memorable one that I've ever done,” he said. 

The calendar may read August, but nobody in San Francisco would know it. Temperatures are cool in the 50s to begin the mornings and dip quickly in late afternoon. The breeze is up. If the course wasn’t so lush and green, the marine layer that rolls in and covers the grounds like a gray blanket might lead a player to think he was standing in Scotland. TPC Harding Park boasts plenty of muscle, with six par-4 holes measuring 460 yards or longer. There is a 251-yard par 3. Players need to work the ball both ways off the tee. It demands a lot.  

“Par will be a wonderful score,” said U.S. Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker, who will compete in his 22nd PGA Championship. “For four days, I think anything under par is going to have a chance, depending on the weather, and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out, but it's playing very difficult.”

The venue also has a history of being kind to favorites. Tiger Woods was No. 1 here when he won a WGC event in 2005, and he went 5-0-0 in the Presidents Cup, again as World No. 1, four years later. When the WGC-Cadillac Match Play visited in 2015, it was another No. 1, Rory McIlroy, securing the crown. Could Thomas, the new No. 1 and the season’s hottest player (three victories), be in line to collect his second PGA title? He, Woods and McIlroy tee off together at 8:33 PT Thursday morning. 

“I think it tests all aspects,” McIlroy said of Harding Park. “It's a fair golf course. It's not tricked up. It's not gimmicky in any way. It's all right there in front of you. Look, I think it's maybe a little bit of a coincidence that the top players come here and win most of the times that things are played here, but I think it says a lot about the course that it lets guys play, and it lets them sort of have the freedom to go out there and play the way they want to.”

Even without fans, everything about TPC Harding Park and what lies ahead over four days is a slowly building tremor that tells us this is something big. Something major. With ESPN, ESPN+ and CBS, for the first time, fans will have the opportunity to watch the action from the opening tee shot to the final putt. The air is heavy here, and it’s not just the fog. It’s heavy with anticipation.   

“It's an honor to be in this position, and we also think it's bigger than golf,” Waugh said. “This is the first really major sporting event since the Super Bowl that's being played. We are excited about that. We're honored to be here.”

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