Stage set for weekend drama at 2020 PGA Championship
Haotong Li has a two-shot lead but proven winners lurk behind at TPC Harding Park.
Great tournaments, like great golf courses, tease with benign beginnings then overwhelm with pressure. The opening hole on both nines at TPC Harding Park offers a friendly welcome, just as those playing early in the day at this PGA Championship were offered the opportunity to post low scores in the first two rounds.
But now the game changes.
Now, it’s the weekend of the PGA Championship. That’s pressure you can’t practice on the range, only experience on the golf course.
Now, the leaders will all be playing in the afternoon, when Harding Park is at its most treacherous. And what a leaderboard it is, as crowded with talent as the Bay Bridge at rush hour is with cars.
On top is Haotong Li, trying to become the first man from China to win a major championship. He was in the second group out Friday morning and grinded out a 65 to finish 36 holes at eight-under-par 132.
How early did Li finish? He went back to his hotel, had lunch, took a nap then came back to Harding Park and was banging balls on the range six hours later when Daniel Berger finished off a 67 to be in second place at 134.
Tied with Berger are Brooks Koepka, looking to win his third consecutive PGA Championship, 2015 PGA winner Jason Day, 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, Tommy Fleetwood, who sizzled with a 64, and Mike Lorenzo-Vera, who was in second alone but made bogey on his final hole – the extremely difficult ninth.
At 135 are Brendon Todd, Paul Casey and Cameron Champ, who matched Fleetwood’s 64, the lowest score of the tournament.
Tiger Woods, trying for a record-tying fifth PGA, never got anything going with the putter and shot 72 to be at 140. Jordan Spieth, chasing the career Grand Slam, and 2017 PGA winner Justin Thomas, No. 1 in the world, both made the cut right on the number at 141.
Thursday and Friday offered a glimpse of what to expect this weekend. As the marine layer melts away, revealing the shining city of San Francisco, the sun comes out, the wind picks up and the greens get firmer and faster.
In each of the first two rounds, the best scores mostly came from morning tee times. Now, those in the thick of things will be facing the most demanding conditions in the afternoon. Add in rough that was topped off at 3½ inches early in the week and has not been cut since and this is going to be fascinating to watch.
The leaderboard is loaded with big-name star power as well as some surprises with fascinating stories. Chief among the surprises is Li, 25, who turned pro when he was just 16 and has two wins on the European Tour.
His best finish in a major is third at the 2017 Open with his best PGA a T-36 last year. He’s probably best known for the viral video of his mother retrieving his tossed putter from a pond at the 2017 French Open.
Now he’ll be known as the first man from China to sleep on the lead at a major.
“The last couple days I've been pretty much all hit in the right spot,” Li said. “Even if I miss the green, I still got a chance to up-and-down, and also got a lot -- good lie in the rough. Still got two rounds left. Long way to go. Just want to play my best. If it happens, it happens.”
Fleetwood is well aware of how difficult Harding Park gets in the afternoon. On Thursday, with a late tee time, he shot even-par 70 then did six strokes better playing early in the second round.
“We played in tough conditions yesterday afternoon,” he said Friday, noting that he was three under par through 11 holes of the first round and ended up even par.
“Today felt good,” he said. “Felt like I worked my way into the round well and then gained momentum and then kept it going.”
Day teed off an hour after Li finished and went out in 33. When he made birdie on No. 10, he was tied with Li at eight under par. But he found the rough on No. 12 and paid the price, making a double bogey.
“It's a big-boy golf course,” Day said. “When we have the southwesterly wind there's a lot of side-wind golf shots, so you have to really control your ball flight. Then on top of it, the greens. They are starting to get that little purple dry look to them, and with this wind, it's definitely difficult. Obviously, you add all that into it and it's a major championship.”
What are the chances we see some fireworks on the weekend at Harding Park? Pretty Good.
Li, Fleetwood and Koepka have all shot 63 in a major championship, Koepka doing it in the PGA Championship each of the last two years.
The actors are ready, the stage is set and Harding Park is more than happy to serve up some afternoon delight. This is turning into a major championship well worth the wait.