102nd PGA Championship preview: TPC Harding Park

Photo by Christian Petersen/PGA of America/PGA of America via Getty Images

Tahoe Onstage will cover all four rounds of the 102nd PGA Championship. Follow along on Twitter @tahoeonstage for live updates on Saturday and Sunday.

When the first shots of the 2020 PGA Championship are struck Thursday morning at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, it will mark the first time since 1998 that a PGA will have been contested on the West Coast. Harding did play a role that year in major championship golf, albeit as a parking lot for the U.S. Open being played across Lake Merced at The Olympic Club.

Having played the municipal course, operated by the City of San Francisco and named for President Warren G. Harding, numerous times in the 1980s and ’90s, its fate as a parking lot wasn’t wholly undeserved. While the skeleton of a grand track framed by spectacular cypress trees was always there, city budgets and a lack of care offered a sad interpretation of the canvas. Teeing grounds had more mud than grass, bunkers were a gloppy clay resembling quicksand, and the greens were so spongy that an afternoon round meant putts traveled drunkenly toward the hole more through the air than on the ground.

Even though the venerable City Championship was still contested there each year, it was largely a sad contrast of what was, to what could be. Tiger Woods once called it a “clover field”, and he wasn’t wrong.

Enter former USGA President and San Francisco native Sandy Tatum, who had a dream of resuscitating the layout at Harding Park, and allowing it to be mentioned in the same breath with it’s neighbors Olympic, Lake Merced Golf Club, The Cal Club, and the course where I met him in my duties as a caddie, San Francisco Golf Club.

Tatum pitched the idea to then PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem in the late 1990s about restoring the public facility, adding First Tee youth programs, and holding a season-ending Tour Championship. In 2003 the dream became a reality, and the first 120 slots to play the course were set aside via lottery for non-private club members. 7,500 public golfers put their name on a slip of paper and Tatum drew the winners.

Sandy Tatum poses on the 18th hole World Golf Championships at Harding Park in San Francisco on Oct. 4, 2005.
AP Photo/Eric Risberg

In the years since, TPC Harding Park has hosted a pair of World Golf Championship events, won by Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy respectively as well as a victory by a U.S. President’s Cup team. Tatum, who died at age 96 in 2017, lived long enough to see those events. But a major championship was always his ultimate dream. Even though Covid-19 has moved the event to this week from the original May dates, with no spectators on the grounds, a PGA Champion will be crowned this Sunday on a former clover field.

The golf course and conditions the competitors will face this week will bear little resemblance to the last eight weeks since the PGA Tour restarted in Fort Worth, Texas. Summer heat has had golf balls flying unreasonable distances, including last week in Truckee at the Barracuda Championship where the 6000 foot altitude added an additional 10 percent bump.

TPC Harding Park will feel decidedly subterranean by comparison. Many players estimate the fog, dampness, and wind will affect how far the ball travels by 8 percent less than normal. While that doesn’t sound like a big deal, what it does is turn a 7,250 yard, par-70 track effectively into a 7,800 yard par-70 beast where hitting fairways will be critical. Wet, 3.5-inch rough awaits wayward tee shots, and with no rain in San Francisco in months the green complexes are quite firm.

Look for accurate, reasonably long drivers, and those with strong scrambling skills to be in the mix on Sunday afternoon.  Here’s a breakdown of some favorites and sleeper picks.

Tiger Woods speaks at the Quickie Quote Area during a practice round of the 102nd PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park on August 4, 2020, in San Francisco.
Darren Carroll/PGA of America
Brooks Koepka (10-1)

Koepka has a chance to make history by winning three straight PGAs for the first time since Walter Hagen (1924-26). He’s struggled since the restart, and even though he had a strong second-place showing in Memphis last week, there isn’t much else to show him in form to repeat. But Brooks has said that the majors are all that matters to him, and the giant chip he carries around may be the best club in his bag.

Justin Thomas (10-1)

Thomas has reached No. 1 in the world for the first time coming off his victory last week at the World Golf Championship in Tennessee. Justin has played well, finding himself in contention a lot since the restart, and that may be the problem. He has all the tools in his game to play well at Harding, but at some point he’ll simply run out of gas and a mentally fatigued player will be punished this week. I could see Thomas comfortably making the cut, and fading on the weekend.

Rory McIlroy (14-1)

McIlroy said in his presser that he actually feels like he’s played well since the restart, but has been inefficient and isn’t scoring as well as he should be for how he’s striking it. He’s also admitted to struggling a bit with the lack of fans and the energy they create. When McIlroy has the driver clicking it seems to ignite his iron game as well, and he’ll get away with being an average putter. Do that, and he’ll be there down the stretch. If the driver doesn’t behave the cut will be a struggle with his so-so short game.

Bryson DeChambeau (16-1)

DeChambeau has been the talk of the tour the last eight weeks since bulking up and hitting the ball enormous, never seen distances. But, he’s an average putter at best, and I’ve yet to see enough short game wizardry to extricate himself from some of the nasty places he’s bound to hit it this week. Chicks dig the long ball, but I don’t see Bryson hoisting the Wannamaker Trophy in San Francisco for anything other than a workout.

Tiger Woods (30-1)

There was a time when you’d mortgage your house to get Tiger at 30-1 in a major. Time changes everyone and a lot would have to go right for Woods to pull off winning his fifth PGA Championship and become the only player in history to win a major in four decades. While Tiger has a win on this track, it was 15 years ago. The Stanford alum’s record in California is stellar and the conditions aren’t foreign to him, but to compete this week will require staying out of the rough to give his back a chance to make it through four rounds. The backup Scotty Cameron putter he’s been practicing with all week will also need the understudy performance of it’s life. Harding will be more difficult than most think, and Tiger might just out-patience everyone in the end.

Gary Woodland (55-1)

No one seems happier to be back at TPC Harding Park this week than Woodland, and in my experience that bodes well for any player at a major championship. Everything about the week is set up to make it difficult and uncomfortable. Gary Woodland sounded Wednesday like a man that understands what he needs to do, has made the adjustments in his game to do them and can’t wait to put them in play. he’s confident and owns a U.S. Open Trophy from 100 miles south at Pebble Beach. I’ve seen worse bets at 55-1.

Adam Scott (60-1)

Scott is making his first appearance in the states since the lockdown having been in Australia with his family, where it’s winter, just like it will feel this week in San Francisco. OK, that may not be enough to take an 60-1 flyer on it’s own but Scott’s record on the West Coast is solid, he’s rested, and has the experience and patience to be there at the end, if he can putt just a little.

Abraham Ancer (65-1)

The weather won’t exactly remind him of his native Mexico, but he’s a reasonably accurate driver that can simply putt the eyes out of it when he gets hot.

Sergio Garcia (70-1)

Can be one of the straightest drivers in the game at times. Serviceably long, with some Seve magic in the short game. Can he stay patient enough?

Shane Lowry (80-1)

The last man to win a major championship 13 months ago isn’t placing any expectations on himself. But a good showing last week and weather conditions he’s seen plenty over his lifetime in Ireland might let him hang around for a chance on Sunday.

2020 Barracuda Champ Richy Werenski (200-1)

Werenski’s win at Old Greenwood Sunday earned him a spot in this week’s PGA where he’ll be hitting the same clubs nearly 20 percent shorter than he did last week. That would freak anyone out.

-Michael Smyth

ABOUT Michael Smyth

Michael Smyth
Michael Smyth moved to Reno in 2007 after living more than 40 years in the Bay Area. In addition to going to live shows, he enjoys golf, skiing and fly-fishing. Check out his website https://michaelsmythmedia.com/

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