With the PGA Championship moving to May next year, this week’s 100th playing of the event at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis is chock full of dramatic story lines that golf’s “fourth” major rarely enjoys.
Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk alluded to the “tournament within the tournament” as players jockey for the final four automatic spots up for grabs, and others try to show good form ahead of the four captain’s picks. But there are numerous other stressful factors at play — from big names trying to qualify for the start of the FedExCup playoffs in two weeks, to others pushing to make a statement in the year’s final major.
The top five players with the most on the line this week:
5. Bryson DeChambeau: The 24-year-old enters the week with a career-high world ranking of No. 22. He has a victory (the Memorial) and four other top-5 finishes in 2018 and made the cut at each of the year’s first three majors. However, outside of his solid form on the course, DeChambeau isn’t doing himself any favors.
Already known for having a quirky personality befitting his irregular golf swing, DeChambeau incurred heavy criticism for failing to shake the hand of his playing partner, Richard McEvoy, after crumbling in the final round of the Porsche European Open last month. He was also caught on camera having a meltdown on the driving range at The Open Championship.
DeChambeau enters the PGA Championship ninth in the U.S. Ryder Cup team standings. With several marquee names and rising young players giving Furyk a bevy of options, DeChambeau may need to secure one of those eight automatic spots to make the squad.
4. Xander Schauffele/Tony Finau: Two of the players nipping at DeChambeau’s heels are Schauffele (No. 11) and Finau (13). Both will have prime opportunity to show Furyk strong form this week as the three will be paired together for the first two rounds. Furyk acknowledged it creates a stressful situation for the two youngsters, but hardly as stressful as grinding over a 5-footer with a match on the line for your country on foreign soil next month.
Schauffele is the reigning Rookie of the Year who made a charge at The Open last month. Finau is the likable monster hitter who would provide Furyk with some interesting pairing options. A strong week by either with their captain watching would go a long way toward being on the short list of candidates.
3. Sergio Garcia: Garcia will have a spot on Team Europe next month, but how much he will play between now and then could ride on how he plays Thursday and Friday. Garcia has slipped to No. 23 in the world during a highly inconsistent 2018. He has seven missed cuts in his past nine events, including all three majors.
Sitting outside the top 125 to qualify for the FedExCup, Garcia added the Canadian Open to his schedule — but promptly missed the cut there two weeks ago. He managed a T39 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last week, but enters the PGA Championship at No. 131 in the FedExCup standings.
Garcia doesn’t need to qualify for the playoffs to salvage his reputation by any means. But getting himself into high-pressure tournaments leading up to the Ryder Cup would certainly be beneficial considering his poor play this summer.
2. Rickie Fowler: The moniker of “best player yet to win a major” will haunt Fowler into his 30s if he isn’t able to shake that monkey off his back this week. Fowler has been in contention plenty this year, but rarely has truly contended on Sunday outside of a late charge at the Masters.
He sits seventh in the U.S. standings, and while Fowler will almost certainly make the team one way or another, Furyk would like to see one of his young guns step up and make a bold statement. And Fowler securing an automatic spot would prevent Furyk from having to use one of his coveted captain’s picks on him.
1. Tiger Woods: Prevailing wisdom is Tiger will be playing in addition to serving as a vice-captain at Le Golf National next month. He sits 20th in the standings, but has enough top-10 finishes and consistent results to warrant a captain’s pick. It’s unrealistic to expect Tiger to vault into the top eight — he would have to win his first major in 10 years to do so. However, a strong performance at Bellerive would help to quiet critics who see a lot of young talent standing between Woods and those automatic spots.
Woods has played in 16 tournaments in 2018. He has missed only one cut — the U.S. Open — since mid-February and has four top-10s over his past 10 events. Watch his driving and putting this week, because Furyk will be. Woods has often been on the first page of the leaderboard on Sunday, only to watch his wayward driver and balky putting cost him several shots at that elusive first victory since 2013.
Furyk wants Woods to play well and make the decision easy. A top-10 finish this week would go a long way as Woods prepares for a handful of important opportunities heading into the playoffs. He’s likely in as of right now, but Woods can’t afford to have the wheels come off at the long — and soggy — Bellerive track.
—Derek Harper, Field Level Media