ROCHESTER, N.Y. — This week, Oak Hill Country Club is hosting the PGA Championship for the fourth time.
It will be the first since the East Course underwent a thorough restoration in 2019. Each of the 18 greens and every bunker were rebuilt. The course is also about 231 yards longer after new back tees were added.
“It’s hard. It’s long,” Kevin Kisner said. “The rough is thick. It’s windy. What else do you want to know? It’s a great course. It’s cool but it’s hard.”
Oak Hill boasts one of the most difficult closing two-hole stretches of any major championship venue. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the par-4, 502-yard 17th hole was the most difficult hole in each of the past three majors played at Oak Hill (1989 U.S. Open, 2003 PGA Championship and 2013 PGA Championship). The par-4, 497-yard 18th isn’t much easier, especially coming down the stretch in the final round.
“I like it,” defending PGA champion Justin Thomas said. “I love old-school golf courses. I think they can create a lot of definition to holes. It just seems like nowadays you can’t really please anybody. It’s like if it’s tree-lined, they can’t get away from the old school. But then take the trees away, it’s a bomber’s paradise, hit it wherever you want. It’s hard to please everybody in that aspect. But it is very tough.”
Here are the top storylines to watch at the 105th PGA Championship this week:
Spieth goes for career Grand Slam
If Spieth tees it up Thursday, he would be making a seventh attempt at completing the career Grand Slam. He remained in the PGA Championship field Monday. Another good sign: His caddie, Michael Greller, was on a commercial flight from Atlanta to Rochester earlier in the day. Spieth wasn’t seen on the East Course on Monday.
When Thomas picked up his second major title by winning the PGA Championship for the second time at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last year, it seemed like the floodgates might open up for him.
There would be no more questions about his five-year drought without a major title after he overcame a record 7-shot deficit in the final round to defeat Will Zalatoris in a playoff. With Jim “Bones” Mackay on his bag, it seemed like JT was about to take off.
Thomas didn’t win again last year, however, and his form hasn’t been great for much of this season, either. He has just two top-10 finishes in 11 starts on tour. In March, he fell out of the top 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking and then missed the cut at the Masters. He’s currently ranked 13th in the world.
Thomas said Monday that he feels he finally started to turn the corner at the Wells Fargo Championship two weeks ago.
“I felt like I showed a lot of really good signs in Charlotte,” Thomas said. “I think Saturday was a great example. It just was a round where I didn’t really have very much. I felt like I left a couple shots out there putting-wise and just wasn’t sharp.
“I was hitting a lot of very poor wedges and irons. I birdied two of the last four holes and salvaged an under-par round on a tough golf course. Bones and I said on [the] 18 green, ‘This is the stuff that we haven’t been doing this year.'”
LIV Golf League out in force
There were more than twice as many LIV Golf players in the PGA Championship field (37) at Southern Hills.
At the Masters in April, the first major of the season, Koepka and Mickelson tied for second at 8 under, 4 strokes behind Jon Rahm.
Mickelson, 52, became the oldest player to finish in the top five at the Masters, and it was the lowest round in Masters history by a player aged 50 or older. Two years ago, he became the oldest man to win a major at the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in South Carolina at 50.
Koepka has already won the PGA Championship twice, at Bellerive Country Club outside St. Louis in 2018 and Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, New York, the next year.
It’s already been a remarkable run for Rahm, who has six worldwide victories since October and has won twice as many PGA Tour events (four) as any other player.
If Rahm hoists the Wanamaker Trophy at Oak Hill on Sunday, the Spaniard would become the first player to win the Masters and the PGA Championship in the same year since Nicklaus in 1975.
According to research by ESPN Stats & Information, it will be the first time that Rahm has started a major as the No. 1-ranked player in the world. Only six players have won a major while ranked No. 1 in the world: Woods (11 times), Scottie Scheffler, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Fred Couples and Ian Woosnam.
As good as Rahm has been this season, Scheffler could regain the world No. 1 ranking by winning his second major at Oak Hill, according to Nosferatu, an OWGR guru on Twitter. And no one has been more consistent in majors than Scheffler.
Scottie could reach #1
Cantlay, Xander #3
Homa, Fitz, CamS #4
Spieth, Finau, Viktor, Burns, JT #5
Young, Collin, Hatton, Im, Day #6
TomKim, Joaco #8
Kurt, Keegan, Hideki #9
Tommy, Sahith, Henley, 🌹 #10
— Nosferatu (@VC606) May 15, 2023
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Scheffler’s 70.48 career scoring average in majors is the best among more than 600 players who have completed at least 50 major rounds. And, yes, that includes Woods, the 15-time major champion who isn’t competing this week after undergoing ankle surgery last month.
Scheffler has six top-10 finishes in majors since 2021, the most by any player. He missed the cut at Southern Hills last year, his only missed weekend in 11 majors since the start of 2020.
Rochester might get chilly
Staging a major championship in upstate New York in May is risky, but the PGA of America might luck out this week. There was a short weather delay Monday morning due to frost. Temperatures are expected to fall into the mid-30s with highs in the low 50s on Wednesday. Forecasts call for temperatures in the 60s and 70s on tournament days. There’s also a chance of rain on the weekend.
— Thad Brown (@thadbrown7) May 15, 2023
“You can definitely tell it’s probably three or four weeks away from being, like, really, really good,” Thomas said of Oak Hill’s East Course. “The course is great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s Rochester, New York, in May. I think it snowed like three weeks ago.”
A reporter, presumably from Rochester, quickly informed Thomas it actually snowed four weeks ago.
“It’s just the risk that comes with it,” Thomas said. “And you’ll have some iffy areas around the greens, and some of the greens are maybe different than others, if they’re shaded or whatnot. The course is really good, that’s for sure.”
Smith getting closer
Australia’s Cameron Smith hasn’t duplicated what he did last year, when he won five times on three different tours, including his first major championship win at the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews. Smith pocketed $17.9 million in on-course winnings — and that doesn’t include however many millions LIV Golf paid to lure him away from the PGA Tour.
This year, however, Smith has an average finish of 11th in six LIV Golf League events. He tied for 34th at the Masters. He had his best performance of the season last week, when he lost to Johnson in a three-man playoff to tie for second at LIV Golf Tulsa.
“It probably took me a few months longer than I wanted it to, but the mind feels good and the game last week was really good,” Smith told ESPN on Monday. “It was nice last week to see some long putts go in and everything is starting to free up. It feels good.”
Thomas and a few other players have already compared Oak Hill’s restored East Course to Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York.
“Just in terms of the greens, not the severity of the greens,” Thomas said. ” They’re not like Winged Foot; nothing is. But just the designs of them and some of the pin locations and how the fairways kind of canter against the slopes or whatever you want to call it.”
If the East Course plays anything like Winged Foot, that might be a good thing for LIV Golf’s Bryson DeChambeau, who won the 2020 U.S. Open there. DeChambeau bombed his way around the golf course for a 6-shot victory over Matthew Wolff.
“I’m going to hopefully be hitting it far but a lot straighter than Winged Foot,” DeChambeau said. “That would be nice.”
DeChambeau, 29, continues to transform his body. He has dropped about 15 pounds in recent months after eliminating corn, wheat, gluten, dairy products, rice and oats from his diet.
“All of the stuff that I like eating,” DeChambeau said. “I was pretty much eating things that were inflaming my body. When I started eating cleaner — a lot of organic food that’s not pasteurized and with no GMOs — I started to lose all of the inflammation. Over time, my body has started to settle in.
“People keep thinking I’m continuing to lose weight. But my body is still 210 pounds. It’s because the fat content is finally starting to go away. I’m eating clean and my body is burning the fat I don’t need.”
In addition to jumping from the PGA Tour to LIV Golf, DeChambeau also changed equipment manufacturers (Cobra to Ping), swing coaches (Chris Como to Dana Dahlquist) and caddies (Tim Tucker to Greg Bodine).
And, of course, he’s still tinkering with his swing.
“I’ve been trying to swing like I did in 2018 for six years now,” DeChambeau said. “I got the speed. I wanted to go down that journey and it was awesome, but I just still couldn’t figure out the mechanics I did well in 2018. There was a time when I fell into it in 2021. I don’t know how I did it, but it fell after 2021.
“Then I hurt my hand and a lot of other stuff happened. It’s just been a grind to get back to 2018. I feel like I’m getting there.”