When it was confirmed in 2017 that the US PGA Championship would move from its traditional August date to May from 2019, Tiger Woods was four months removed from spinal fusion surgery and just three from being arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.
So it is no wonder the tournament has been described as “hitting the lottery” as it welcomes newly-crowned Masters champion Woods and the rest of the field to Bethpage State Park for the first US PGA to be staged in May since 1949.
“We were very excited about the May change even before Tiger set off his fireworks in Georgia,” Seth Waugh, the PGA of America chief executive, said.
“We think we made a great decision but we’d rather be lucky than good as well. We thought it was smart; it looks brilliant now.”
Good morning from Bethpage Black!May 15, 2019
Perhaps unsurprisingly American broadcasters CBS are equally delighted, with veteran presenter Jim Nantz adding: “Who would have ever forecast that the PGA Championship would walk into year one of this coming on the heels of one of the greatest moments in the history of the sport?
“The PGA Championship has hit the lottery.”
Previously fourth in the calendar and in importance, the US PGA will not need to rely on slogans such as “Glory’s Last Shot” or “This is Major” to drum up interest, for this year at least.
Woods took care of that with his 15th major title, and a first since 2008, at Augusta National last month and is among the favourites for victory at a venue where he led from start to finish to win the 2002 US Open, and was the only player to finish under par.
The 43-year-old was also sixth when the tournament returned in 2009 and leads the PGA Tour in greens in regulation this season.
But whether he will continue to be after a week battling thick, wet rough on the fearsome Black Course at Bethpage State Park remains to be seen.
Away from Woods’ pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles, there is the small matter of Jordan Spieth attempting to complete the career grand slam, and Brooks Koekpa looking to defend his title as he did in last year’s US Open.
Spieth was second in the world after completing the third leg of the slam in the 2017 Open Championship but has failed to win since and starts the week ranked 39th after failing to post a single top-20 finish on the PGA Tour this season.
In contrast, Koepka comes into the week on the back of a tie for second behind Woods at the Masters and finishing fourth in last week’s AT&T Byron Nelson in Dallas, while his form in majors since the 2016 US PGA reads an impressive 4-11-1-6-13-1-39-1-2.
The three-time major winner has set himself the target of winning at least 10 and believes “sometimes the majors are the easiest ones to win.”
“(There are) 156 players in the field, so you figure at least 80 of them I’m just going to beat,” Koepka added. “You figure about half of them won’t play well from there, so you’re down to about maybe 35.
“And then from 35, pressure is going to get to them. It only leaves you with a few more, and you’ve just got to beat those guys.”
Rory McIlroy will be hoping to be among “those guys” after being unable to complete his own career grand slam at Augusta, with the Northern Irishman’s tie for 21st being his worst result in the Masters since 2013.
McIlroy was 20 years old and playing just his third major in the 2009 US Open at Bethpage, finishing tied for 10th after a closing 68, a score beaten only by Ian Poulter’s 67.
His performances on the same course in The Barclays in 2012 and 2016 were
nothing to write home about, and the four-time major winner knows his long game will need to be better than it was at Augusta, where he ranked 58th for driving accuracy.
Woods ranked only slightly higher at 47th but accuracy was never his strongest suit and none of the sell-out crowd at Bethpage will care about such statistics if the 101st US PGA ends with Woods celebrating more improbable major glory.
For lovers of coincidence, the only time Woods has won the first two majors of the season was in 2002, when he followed victory at Augusta with the US Open title at Bethpage. Different tournament, same result?
- Press Association