The 2019 USPGA Championship changes from its traditional place as the fourth and final major of the season this year to become the second major following the US Masters, meaning it is technically no longer “Glory’s Last Shot”.
Whether that makes any difference to the type of result we have come to expect remains to be seen but, either way, it promises to be a spectacular event as the host course is the notoriously difficult Bethpage Black in New York, a course that will also be used for the 2024 Ryder Cup.
Indeed, the players will do well not to read any signs this week, especially the welcoming one that says, ‘WARNING: The black course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers.’
The evidence as to just how difficult Bethpage Black can play comes from the two US Open staged there.
Tiger Woods won the 2002 US Open with a –3 par total. He was the only player that finished under par that week, winning by three shots from Phil Mickelson, with Jeff Maggert, Sergio Garcia, and Nick Faldo the other top-five finishers.
Lucas Glover was the winner when the US Open returned there in 2009, when his -4 under total was two-shots too good for Ricky Barnes, David Duval, and Phil Mickelson, with Ross Fisher proving the best of the European contingent in fifth place.
Bethpage Black also staged The Barclays in both 2012 and 2016, when Nick Watney (-10) and Patrick Reed (-9) were the winners.
Courses used for the USPGA are rarely set up as hard as they are for US Opens but the evidence suggests that the winning score may still only be –5 or – 6 this week. That’s because the course has been reduced to a par-70, having been a par-71 when it hosted The Barclays.
If that’s the case, that would make it the highest-scoring USPGA since Padraig Harrington won the 2008 edition on a total of –3 under.
How many under par the winning score is shouldn’t really make a difference to players, but some thrive in easy-scoring conditions when making lots of birdies makes them feel like they’re playing well. Meanwhile, other players really get the bit between their teeth when scoring conditions are tough, feeling that they’re mentally stronger than many of their opponents under such conditions.
It will be interesting to see which if the stars fare best under such conditions this week, with many of them paired together in headline groupings.
Tiger Woods, Brooks Koepka, and Francesco Molinari form the traditional trio of Open Champion, US Masters Champion, and US Open Champion. They tee it up on the first morning, along with two other high-profile groups in Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, and Justin Rose, and Sergio Garcia, Justin Thomas, and Adam Scott.
In the afternoon, it’s the turn of John Rahm, Dustin Johnson, and Jordan Spieth, with Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, and Jason Day to follow.
Bethpage Black is likely to test the full skillset of all the players this week, but the two main skills that are likely to be required are the ability to hit it long and to the ability to putt well on poa annua greens.
Four players head the market this week, with the resurgent Tiger Woods fighting for favouritism with major-specialist Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, and Rory McIlroy. It’s impossible to rule any of the big-four out, and the viewing figures will go through the roof if all of the quartet are in contention come Sunday afternoon.
The next wave of Rickie Fowler, John Rahm, Justin Rose, and Francesco Molinari could also go close, but I’m tempted to risk some bigger-priced players this week. Topping that list is Jason Day, who may look like he’d sooner be at home with his wife and kids most of the time, but he still has the talent to conquer this course.
He limped throughout the first round at Augusta but was walking tall and talking like a man that had rediscovered his love for the game at the end. His ball-striking is as good as anyone’s and he also putts well on poa annua greens having won twice at Torrey Pines. Add in a fourth here in the 2016 Barclays and he’s likely to fancy his chances this week.
Another player that looks massively overpriced this week is Patrick Reed. The reason for that is he’s not been in the best of form lately, but there are several reasons why he might bounce back here. The first of those is he’ll have fond memories of Bethpage Black having won The Barclays in 2016.
He also had progressive form in the event from 2014 to 2017 of 58/30/13/2. Admittedly, he missed the cut last year but that was because he had taken his foot off the gas after becoming Masters Champion. However, now he’s not Masters Champion, it’s worth remembering that he won at Augusta when not being in the best of form, and he looks worth a bet.
Finally, it could be worth chancing a relative outsider this week in the form of Jhonattan Vegas. The Venezuelan has played some great golf over the last couple of seasons and his ball-striking statistics suggest that Bethpage Black could be a great fit for this powerful hitter. He’s certainly improved since he finished 22nd at The Barclays in 2016 and has gone on record as saying he loves the course.
Top-class results at The Players Championship, Torrey Pines, and Quail Hollow suggest he should thrive in a tough arena and, with the extra motivation of claiming a place in the President’s Cup Team, he could bely big odds this week.