FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – The stars are shining brightly on Broadway this week as the reigning Masters champion Tiger Woods, the defending champion Brooks Koepka, and the world’s number player Dustin Johnson all are favorites to win the 101st PGA Championship this week at Bethpage Black.
While not as relentless as Winged Foot, as penal as Oakmont, or as windy as Pebble Beach, Bethpage Black looks to reward length most of all this week. Three par 4s are longer than 500 yards, several others are severely uphill, and still others require gargantuan drives over long forced carries to reach the fairways. The course tops out at 7,459 yards, but with par reduced to 70 and torrential rains softening the turf, it will play much longer, limiting the number of players that have a reasonable chance of contending.
“In order to win this one, driving is going to be at the forefront,” explained Tiger Woods, hoping this week to capture his 16th major championship and his record-tying fifth PGA Championship. “You’ve got to not only hit it straight, but you have got to hit it far because the majority of the greens are elevated, and so trying to get enough spin, hitting the ball up to elevation, with the greens firming up, you have to be in the fairway to do that.”
Woods has already proven himself prophetic. Following him during a practice round, we saw him nuke a driver from the back tee on the 524-yard par-4 seventh hole, but he still was short of the green on his approach from 230 yards with a 3-wood.
“I remember hitting 3-wood, 7-iron into that hole in the past,” Woods lamented. “Yesterday, I hit driver, 3-wood and didn’t get to the green. When we came here in 2002, this was one of the biggest ballparks you’ve ever seen, and it’s only gotten bigger.”
One person rejoicing at the added length and Olympian strength needed to conquer the Black is three time major winner and defending champion Brooks Koepka, he of the bulging biceps and slavering jaws. He’s licking his chops at a chance to unleash as much fury as he can muster and let the difficulty of the golf course do the rest of the heavy lifting for him.
“This golf course is already long, but being wet, it’s going to be interesting to see. It makes the fairways a bit wider, which I think could benefit the long hitters because we can get a little further down there,” he noted hungrily, baring his fangs toothily as if trying to figure out which journalist to eat first. Then he dropped the biggest bomb of today’s media center interviews.
“There are 156 [players] in the field, so you figure at least 80 of them I’m just going to beat. From there, you figure about half of them won’t play well, so you’re down to maybe 35. And then some of them, the pressure is going to get to them. It leaves you with a few more, and you’ve just got to beat those guys,” he concluded, looking satisfied with himself, as though he’d just outwitted Aristotle. Jack Nicklaus used to espouse the same field dissection.
I guess he’s not here to make friends. “Brooksy,” as Woods nauseatingly calls him, is on the warpath.
Still, what a spectacle that would be: a third round of Woods vs. Koepka, golf’s answer to Sandor Clegane vs. Gregor Clegane on HBO’s "Game of Thrones." Only instead of broadswords they’d be swinging 460cc drivers at one another. Many in the room sensed that might be in the offing and one journalist actually asked Koepka about an earlier quote where Brooks said he expects Tiger to be in contention, but he doesn’t fear him.
“I mean what’s the point in fearing anybody," he said. "We’re not fighting. I mean unless I was standing there and not prepared for a punch. Other than that, he’s not going to knock my teeth in. He’s not going to hurt me. So what’s there to be afraid of?”
Somebody who may very well have tried to knock Koepka’s teeth in – on the Ryder Cup plane flight pre-event no less – is world number one Dustin Johnson. The two buried the hatchet after their little “handbags at sunset” incident on the way to France and are power lifting together again, both literally and metaphorically, trying to add the 36-pound Wanamaker trophy to their already impressive collections of major victories. In addition to last year’s PGA at Bellerive, Koepka is the defending back-to-back U.S. Open champion, while DJ won the Open in 2016 at mighty Oakmont, another murderously tough and brutally long layout.
“For me, it’s all about driving,” stated Johnson, echoing the sentiments of both Tiger and Brooks. “The rough is pretty penal. It’s not super deep, but it’s just really thick, and you’ve got to drive it straight….The course is playing extremely long right now.”
Johnson is right. Almost every player we polled agreed that the PGA has set up the course as though this were a U.S. Open; the most a player might be able to hit out of the deep rough is a 8- or 7-iron. Trying to advance the ball out of thick, wet, juicy, flat-bladed, 4-inch rough will be a risky proposition. Players could easily bring double bogey into the mix with one poorly executed shot or one ill-timed mental error. Under optimum circumstances, you’ll have several long irons in your hand at Bethpage Black, especially on mammoth par 4s like 10, 12, and 15 – respectively playing at 502 yards, 515 yards, and 460 yards but three clubs uphill.
Ordinarily rain lets many of the shorter hitters into the mix, as balls won’t stray into the rough as easily, but the added length and long carries of Bethpage Black serve to negate that factor. Lucas Glover stole the rainy “Bathpage” 2009 U.S. Open, fending off Tiger, Vijay Singh, David Duval and Phil Mickelson. But that was a statistical outlier.
There might be a few shotmakers that might be able to break up the Bomber’s Bromance these three sluggers seem to be enjoying this week, but not many. Rory McIlroy and Francesco Molinari come to mind, although the former is having putting troubles and the latter is still smarting from leaving the Masters in Rae’s Creek and dropping a Green Jacket on the ground for Tiger to claim instead. Francesco will need a short memory and a case of Asti Spumante to recover from that grievous disappointment. Jon Rahm has the length and machismo to keep up with the other Bash Brothers, but his mental errors and hot temper have proved to be a significant downfall. Just look at what happened top him at The Players this year. Perhaps only Justin Rose might be able to maintain the needed length, accuracy, and mental toughness to keep pace with the favorites. He survived the crucible of Merion on championship Sunday to win the 2013 U.S. Open, surging past Phil Mickelson.
If you’re looking for a sleeper pick, perhaps unflappable birdie machine Tommy Fleetwood might finally capture a major. He’s been lurking around the top of leaderboards at majors with impressive frequency, ending 2018 with four consecutive top-10s, and his closing 63 at Shinnecock Hills nearly stole last year’s U.S. Open.
“The hair gives me an extra few yards distance off the tee and a few extra feet of accuracy on my approaches,” he quipped.
Still, as the sun set on a cold, windy, wet, somber brutish Bethpage Black, it was Brooks Koepka who issued one final ultimatum.
“I have the trophy. Someone has got to...” he trailed off, but we all know what the end of that sentence was. “I feel like I’m playing really good. The last time we played this championship, I won. I feel like I like my chances this week.”
So does everyone else, Brooks. Everyone except Tiger and DJ, that is.