PGA Championship: Fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis

Ricky Elliott, Brooks Koepka
Brooks Koepka is looking to win the PGA Championship for the third year in a row this week with caddie Ricky Elliott. Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Ken Venturi and Johnny Miller. Fleck over Hogan. Casper over Palmer. Two Simpsons, 25 years apart.

San Francisco adds another page to a rich golf history this weekend as the first spectator-less major championship unfolds at TPC Harding Park, overlooking Lake Merced near the Pacific shore, just a short ride from Olympic Club.

The PGA Championship opens the 2020 major championship schedule, albeit three months later than expected. The 156-man field is competing for a cool $11 million with the winner earning $1.98 million.

Harding Park is a municipal course and anytime a major is held at a place anybody can play, the game of golf is the winner.

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ESPN and CBS have the coverage with every shot Thursday and Friday available online. Tiger Woods won the 2005 WGC-American Express here and Rory McIlroy prevailed in the 2015 WGC-Match Play, defeating Gary Woodland in the finals. The 2009 Presidents Cup was also held at Harding Park.

The course is 7,234 yards and a par 70, featuring seven par 4s measuring 460 yards or longer and two that are drivable. The rough is lush and the course is expected to be firm as San Francisco has had little rainfall this summer. High temperatures are low 60s to high 70s with windy afternoons (15-20 mph) in the forecast for Thursday and Friday afternoon. At some point, there’s bound to be fog.

I’ve said this before in this space but it bears repeating: Northern California golf demands solid ballstriking. The ball does not travel in the cool, dank air. Spend too much time in the rough and a flight home awaits on Friday night.

Par-4 scoring is obviously a critical statistic this week and factored heavily into our rankings. The course is loaded with doglegs, defended by massive cypress trees and the holes bend both left and right. Recent form is always important and pros with California roots should have an advantage in the conditions, which are quite unlike the heat and humidity the players encountered in Tennessee last week and most other recent starts.

Best of luck, as always. If you get confused, listen to the music play.

Golfer power rankings

25. Bubba Watson – The game’s ultimate feel player doesn’t subscribe to swing theory and formal lessons. Still, the two-time Masters champion recently hired noted swing instructor Claude Harmon III (Brooks Koepka, etc.) as his “life coach.” Their focus on scoring and maximizing Watson’s immense talent showed Sunday in a final-round 65 at TPC Southwind. One hot round could be an illusion but over the last 24 rounds, Watson leads the PGA field in efficiency on par 4s measuring 450-500 yards. The doglegs should ignite Watson’s creativity – nobody in the game is more comfortable bending the ball off the tee.

24. Matthew Fitzpatrick – The 2013 U.S. Amateur champion used to play for silver, now he plays for life. His recent performance, coupled with Justin Thomas’ victory last week, might provoke the PGA Tour flock to beseech Jim “Bones” McKay to tote their bag for a tournament. Fitzpatrick’s current sizzle started with Bones in tow in Ohio and he overcame poor approach shots last week to post a second consecutive top 10. Putter has been hotter than the fourth day of July (gained 10 strokes on the greens last week).

23. Tom Lewis – Leads the PGA Tour in Greens in Regulation in approach shots from 175-200 yards (69.57 percent). Feeling good about his game after blistering TPC Southwind over the final 36 holes and finishing tied for second last weekend. Despite recent success (also T-12 at Rocket Mortgage) still a value pick in most fantasy games.

22. Bryson DeChambeau – Some folks trust to reason, others trust to might. The Incredible Ant Mass subscribes to both. What path shall he take at Harding Park? Bombing drives over the dogleg corners can be a strategy of strength – John Daly gained a whopping 10.5 strokes off the tee and finished runner up in the 2005 WGC-AMEX – but also a plan ripe with disaster. The massive cypress trees swallow golf balls faster than Bryson’s four-egg breakfast. Iron game has been atrocious the last two weeks (lost 6.8 strokes to the field).

21. Kevin Na – Comfortable in California, the 36-year-old is having a career year (16th in the FedEx Cup) and simply needs an accurate week to knock on the golden door this week at Harding Park. He’s gained strokes on approach in each of the last six tournaments and is one of the game’s best pitchers and putters.

20. Webb Simpson – His trusted caddie Paul Tesori is home with herniated discs and a torn labrum. Breaking up one of the Tour’s strongest tandems won’t help Simpson’s chances to win a second major not far from where he won his first one at Olympic Club. Has three top 12s (with a win) and two missed cuts since the restart. Leads the Tour in par-4 scoring average (3.87).

19. Hideki Matsuyama – Only lost 0.6 strokes on the green last week in a T-20 at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude, which counts as a mild victory for the ballstriking maestro. Fares well in moderate wind and is 17 under on the par 4s in 58 rounds on the PGA Tour in 2020-21.

18. Tony Finau – After parting ways with long-time caddie Greg Bodine after Memorial, Finau used swing coach Boyd Summerhays at the 3M (third) and veteran Tour caddie Mark Urbanek in Memphis (T-65). The metrics point to a strong week – he putts well on bentgrass while other surfaces can be mysteries dark and vast. But poor iron play fueled his demise a week ago (lost 7.5 strokes on approach).

17. Harris English – The chilly winds might blow but they won’t faze English, who has averaged gaining strokes in every measurable category over his last 10 tournaments, finished in the top 20 in six of the last seven starts and ranks 29th in the FedEx Cup. Enjoys putting on bentgrass.

16. Tommy Fleetwood – Missed back-to-back cuts before finishing 35th in Memphis but he’s unafraid to climb a major leaderboard. Iron game and touch were on track last week. Needs a better week with the driver to make a serious charge.

15. Tiger Woods – Arrived in San Francisco on Sunday afternoon to start preparing for his fourth tournament of 2020. His body has failed to cooperate in cooler weather in the past but has fond memories of Harding Park, winning the 2005 WGC-AMEX and going 5-0-0 in the 2009 Presidents Cup. He’s second in the field in SG: Approach-the-Green when there’s wind and bentgrass greens. The driver is the key, obviously.

14. Tyrrell Hatton – Struggled throughout the bag in Memphis and finished T-69. One bad week but that’s a searchlight casting for faults in the clouds of delusion. He’s second on the PGA Tour in average proximity to the hole from 175-200 yards (26’ 8”), 11th in SG: Approach-the-Green and eighth in SG: Putting and has two top-5s since the restart.

13. Ryan Palmer – Atrocious putting in Memphis, losing 4.4 strokes, but still salvaged a T-15, his seventh top 25 in 12 starts in 2020, offset by four missed cuts. The work of his day measures more than the driving and putting. The wily veteran understands how to play and when he’s in rhythm is unafraid to produce a solid finish.

12. Rory McIlroy – The two-time PGA champion is driftin’ and dreamin’ at the moment. Playing great before the break, his game is in a place it’s never been with five starts and not a single top 10 since the Tour resumed. Tread lightly, but such immense talent can unleash at any time.

11. Dustin Johnson – The runner-up in last year’s PGA at Bethpage rebounded from an awful effort at Memorial to finish T-12 at Memphis, his third top 20 in the last four starts, including a win at the Travelers. He’s a proven contender in the major championships and if he wants to add a second title to his case, the clocks are running late.

10. Jon Rahm – To me, anyway, the biggest enigma on the PGA Tour as it pertains to these rankings. Will he prosper in his time? Well, he may – and he may decline. He won Memorial in interesting fashion but otherwise has been pedestrian at best since the restart – failing to crack the top 25 in five tournaments. Omit him at your own peril, though.

9. Adam Scott – Things we’ve seen will seem familiar this week, among them Adam Scott reappearing in the professional golf world and carving his place on the leaderboard at a major championship. He’s geared his schedule toward the major events and been cautious with his travel in the wake of the global pandemic. Last time he was in California, he won at Riviera in February. Hasn’t played since March.

8. Daniel Berger – This must be heaven for Berger, who is realizing his vast potential this season. Forget Bryson, the hottest player on the planet is Berger, having a high time livin’ the good life, with six top 10s in seven starts including a 1-2-3 trifecta. Would be higher if not for the bentgrass, his worst surface.

7. Collin Morikawa – Another Cal product should feel right at home as winds both foul and fair all swarm amid the fog in San Francisco. Last week his iron game was simply better than average, rather than his typical elite, and he chipped poorly, finishing T-20. If the putter cooperates, he’ll have a shot to hoist the Wanamaker.

6. Abraham Ancer – Prepped nicely last week in Memphis with a 15th place, rebounding from a second-round 75 to fire 131 on the weekend. Among the field over the last 24 rounds, he’s 58th or better in every SG category. It all rolls into one and nothing comes for free and it’s easy to love a player ranked 16th in par-4 scoring on this layout.

5. Jason Day – Just five years ago at Whistling Straits, he set the major championship record for scoring (20-under) and claimed what many figured was the first of many major titles. Injury and illness derailed that train, however, the former World No. 1 lands by the bay poised for flight with wings spread bright thanks to three consecutive top 10s. His stellar iron play continued last week in Memphis and he’s comfortable on bentgrass, in the wind and facing a difficult course.

4. Brooks Koepka – Just a week ago, many so-called know-it-alls, myself foremost, were writing and spouting that he’s gone and ain’t nothing short of knee surgery gonna bring him back. Then, if not for an odd bounce on a wedge shot and a hooked tee ball in the closing holes, he would’ve won an WGC event. Just know that it’s now officially major season and the two-time defending champion has come to San Francisco for the reckoning.

3. Patrick Cantlay – In the secret space of dreams, Cantlay has surely envisioned a major championship. Without question, he has the tools to secure one and an excellent caddie beside him in Matt Minister. Cantlay, another Californian, never slips too far from pure and checks all the boxes this week: 12th in par-4 scoring and top 10 among the field in six of the eight SG categories. He’ll be there until the end.

2. Justin Thomas – The 2017 PGA Champion is prepared and eager to win another major after a wrist injury forced him to skip last year’s PGA. This is the same guy who wants to beat people so bad that they want to quit the game. He’s a stone killer, the leader of the band. Bentgrass is not his best surface. Then again, it may not matter. He won last week despite losing 1.9 strokes on the green.

1. Xander Schauffele – Think this through with me, the only time is now for the 26-year-old Californian who has been knockin’ on the door of a major title since he arrived on Tour in 2017 with four top 5s in 11 starts. Lands near the Golden Gate on the heels of a T-6 in Memphis, his fourth consecutive top 20 to accompany a T-3 at Colonial since the restart. I’ve had my eye on him for this week for a while and he’s done nothing to change my mind.

COMMENTS

  1. Agree with almost your entire impressive list here. But, your number one pick and your number 2 pick should be reversed. (Publish this)…JT is the anti-Sergio meaning that he doesn’t choke or collapse on Sundays. The guy thrives on the heat.

    1. Darren: Couldn’t agree with you more on JT. He’s a closer who knows how to win. Just felt like it was Xander’s time. He’s been so close.

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