By Norm Elrod
(CBS New York/CBS Local) — The 101st PGA Championship, which will tee off Thursday at Bethpage Black, welcomes possibly the strongest field to ever play a major. Until Justin Thomas withdrew with a wrist injury, all 100 of the world’s top 100 players were scheduled to appear. Losing a top-five player certainly changed the prediction calculus a little. But a glance at the favorites — Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy — still suggests an exciting weekend of golf for the tournament’s inaugural May event.
Traditionally played in mid-August, the PGA Championship slips into the second major slot on the calendar, a month after the Masters and a month before the U.S. Open. Storylines abound. Can Tiger Woods win his 16th major and pull within two of Jack Nicklaus on the all-time list? Will this historic field tame the legendary Bethpage Black? Koepka’s coming of age, Jordan Spieth’s grand slam, possible breakthroughs… the list goes on.
That’s why we watch.
As mentioned previously, this PGA Championship will enjoy a stellar field of golf’s best. That will include all of the top 10, outside of the injured Thomas. Koepka (3) took home the Wanamaker Trophy from the 2018 event at Bellerive Golf Course, beating out Woods (6) by two strokes. Francesco Molinari (7), who managed a T6 at Bellerive, is the only other world top-10 to crack last year’s tournament top 10. Every one of the previous 10 PGA Championship winners, outside of Thomas, will tackle Bethpage, including Jimmy Walker (2016), Jason Day (2015) and Jason Dufner (2013).
Perhaps as relevant as past PGA Championship winners are past winners from tournaments held at Bethpage Black. The 2016 Barclays was the most recent. Winner Patrick Reed, along with T2 finisher Emiliano Grillo and T4 finisher Gary Woodland all return to the course this week. At the same tournament in 2012 (then known as the Barclays), Brandt Snedeker finished second, ahead of Johnson and Sergio Garcia at T3. The Bethpage Black course also hosted the U.S. Open in 2002 and 2009. Lucas Glover won the latter, followed by Phil Mickelson at T2, while Woods won the former, also followed by Mickelson.
Bethpage Black has received renewed attention this week, and rightfully so. This course challenges players throughout its 7,459 yards of fairways and greens, with only one par-3 less than 200 yards and one par-4 less than 400 yards. It will play at par-71, the same as at its previous two Barclays/Northern Trust events, and will tempt golfers to move beyond their comfort zone.
Nick Faldo, the CBS Sports lead analyst who finished T5 at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage, says the key to playing well at the course is staying patient and hitting smart shots. “Course strategy, putting the reigns on yourself. Just being smart and sensible,” he said recently. “Don’t compound any errors by getting super aggressive just because you are forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do. I think that’s one of the keys to the golf course. If you don’t like the shot, play it safe, you wait and bide your time. Hopefully you’ll find a few shots you can get really aggressive on.”
The 15th hole tends to inspire dread, with its 180-yard uphill approach to a green flanked by bunkers. Bogies will likely outnumber birdies here. But the back nine opens with a trio of par-4s that are easily the course’s toughest stretch.
Weather could factor into the equation too, as Long Island has experienced a cool, wet spring to date. The rough has appeared higher than expected in previews, signaling trouble for those whose drives leave the fairway. At least temperatures in the mid-60s, with a slight breeze, will be pleasant enough.
Who are the favorites to capture 2019’s second major?
Tiger Woods (8/1)
Everyone is betting on the big cat to pick up his second major of the year, and for good reason. Tiger won his fifth green jacket last month, bumping up his major total to 15. That total also includes four PGA Championships (1999, 2000, 2006, 2007) and a second-place finish in last year’s event. He won the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black in 2002, with the only under-par score, and tied for sixth there in 2009 with a score of even-par. While Tiger is playing some the best major golf over the last year, he hasn’t seen action since the Masters last month.
Dustin Johnson (10/1)
Ranked number one in the world, Johnson gets mentioned as a favorite in every tournament he enters. He was T2 to Woods at the Masters, but has only taken the course in one tournament since — a 28th-place finish at the RBC Heritage the following week. So talk of too much layoff time could fairly apply to him as well. Johnson has only missed the top 10 in two of his eight events this year, and checked in at T3 for the 2012 Barclays, played a Bethpage Black. He should figure into the leaderboard conversation come Sunday.
Brooks Koepka (10/1)
World number three Brooks Koepka shows up for majors. The defending PGA Championship winner actually has more major wins than non-major wins. Koepka continued a strong season with a fourth-place finish at the AT&T Byron Nelson. Previous finishes include a T2 at the Masters and the Honda Classic. As one of the PGA Tour’s true bombers, he’s well equipped to tackle the long holes at Bethpage Black.
CBS coverage airs Saturday and Sunday at 2-7 p.m. Eastern, with additional coverage on CBS Sports Network and CBSSports.com throughout the tournament.