Rozner: Finding PGA pick not easy this time around

  • Jon Rahm blasts off from the first tee during practice for the PGA Championship Tuesday at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco.

    Jon Rahm blasts off from the first tee during practice for the PGA Championship Tuesday at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco. Associated Press

  • Tiger Woods takes in the scenery during putting practice for the PGA Championship Tuesday at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco.

    Tiger Woods takes in the scenery during putting practice for the PGA Championship Tuesday at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 8/4/2020 5:38 PM

Some major championship weeks are as clear as can be.

Among those that felt relatively easy to forecast in recent years were Jason Day at Whistling Straits, Dustin Johnson at Oakmont, Brooks Koepka at Erin Hills, Justin Thomas at Quail Hollow, Koepka again at Bethpage and Gary Woodland at Pebble Beach.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

And there are weeks like this one, where the Sunday leaderboard seems today as foggy as the weather at Harding Park, searching for a needle in a stack of needles, in a year when everything about our existence is upside down.

A brilliant public course that sits across Lake Merced from Olympic Club and a half-mile from the Pacific Ocean, Harding Park hosting the PGA Championship could at times this week play like an Open Championship, cool and damp, a U.S. Open, with thick rough and fast greens, and the Masters, where ball position on the greens is essential.

With no fans on the course and no Tiger Woods roars to intimidate opponents, you might want to look down the card to find a winner. Normally in a major, there's little need to glance past the Top 15 in the world, but this week is more complicated and there's probably 40 players in the mix.

Let's start with Woods, the defending Masters champ who looked very good in the charity match with Phil Mickelson, but not sharp at all in his only outing since the restart, that at the Memorial.

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The cold weather is going to be a problem for his balky back, but the good news is Woods got the early-late draw, which gives him a chance. The late-Thursday, early-Friday tee time has not worked out well because he struggles to bounce back and get loose.

If he can stay in the race Thursday, he's got a great chance at 30-1 given his 14 wins in California, many rounds in the Lake Merced area, his WGC win in 2005 at Harding, and his spectacular 5-0 record at the 2009 Presidents Cup, also at Harding.

Yardage in the heavy San Francisco fog is different from distance in the afternoon sun and Woods knows this better than anyone, so if he's in it on Sunday he will be very, very dangerous.

Co-favorites at 12-1 are two-time defending PGA champ Koepka and Thomas (2017 PGA champ), who held off Koepka Sunday in Memphis when Koepka hit his tee shot on 18 into the water -- with a fairway metal.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Koepka's left knee might be enough to scare you away. The fact that he had three coaches on property Tuesday morning only adds to the concern. He's 146th in strokes-gained putting and is fighting the double-cross, almost certainly because of a knee that makes it difficult to get to his left side.

But this is a major championship and Koepka has owned the major season the last three years. He did have that icy look in his eyes Tuesday morning.

Thomas is back to No. 1 in the world with his third win of the season Sunday, despite hitting it all over the park. At 27, Thomas is the third-youngest ever to 13 victories behind only Woods (23) and Jack Nicklaus (25).

He deserves his current favored status.

But he also blew a 3-shot lead with 3 to play at Muirfield the week before the Memorial and had a chance to give away a 2-shot lead with 2 to play Sunday. A superb iron player, down the stretch he hasn't been able to hit a fairway under pressure, and at Harding Park fairways will be critical.

Rory McIlroy is 15-1 and won Match Play at Harding Park beating Woodland in the final in 2015, but he hasn't won a major since 2014, has bemoaned the energy without fans, is 98th with the flat stick and has changed putters numerous times in 5 starts since the break, without a Top 10 finish.

If he could putt, this wouldn't be a contest.

Bryson DeChambeau (16-1) is all the rage, looking like Mark McGwire, hitting it miles and putting lights out. The mad scientist will not have a problem on this track if he hits fairways, but his wedge game has not caught up to the rest of his bag. When it does, he will be a major championship force.

Guys like Xander Schauffele (16-1) and Patrick Cantlay (25-1) have majors in their future, and Schauffele could win if he puts four rounds together. He's been giving away tournaments this year with one bad day, as he did at Memorial when he handed 9 shots to Jon Rahm on Thursday and finished 10 behind the winner.

But if you're looking for a price, think in terms of defending Open champ Shane Lowry (70-1), who hits it straight and will be comfortable in the weather conditions. He was eighth last year at Bethpage.

Daniel Berger (40-1) has his career back after surviving injuries and is a real threat, as is Abraham Ancer (70-1), who was outstanding in the Presidents Cup. There are no holes in his game. This is a draw course and these two players have every shot in the bag.

Europeans Matt Fitzpatrick (60-1) and Tyrell Hatton (60-1) have been extraordinary on the greens this year and if they get off to solid starts, a live play is good idea.

You want a bomb? Graeme McDowell is 300-1. He won a U.S. Open at Pebble (2010) and could have won across the water at Olympic Club (2012). He finished T-2 with Michael Thompson (200-1), who won two weeks ago in Minnesota.

Finishing fourth at Olympic in 2012 was Jim Furyk, who had it in the bag until he snapped a drive into the woods late on Sunday. Furyk (350-1) won Sunday in his first Champions Tour start.

That 2012 U.S. Open a few hundred yards from Harding Park was captured by Webb Simpson, who has been brilliant since the restart, winning at Hilton Head and currently ranked first in birdie and putting average, fourth in scoring average, sixth in proximity, seventh in approach, 14th in greens and 19th in fairways.

On a course that does not reward length, where the rough will be sticky in the morning, trees are jail and fairways are tight, Simpson (30-1) was very close to being the pick here. But his veteran caddie is off the bag with a back injury and that is an uncomfortable way to enter a major.

So the selection for 102nd PGA Championship is the 25-year-old Rahm (16-1), who won the biggest tournament of the last 11 months when he captured the Memorial three weeks ago and moved to No. 1 in the world for two weeks.

That was a major championship course in every sense with only nine players finishing under par, and Rahm dissected Muirfield with precision and patience, which will be necessary this week. It is the most difficult course the Tour has played since the Open Championship 13 months ago.

He has already won twice in California, including at Torrey Pines with its marine layer. He's won the Spanish Open and twice the Irish Open, which offer many similarities in terms of weather.

He said Tuesday morning that Harding Park -- and its conditions -- reminds him very much of the courses he grew up playing. He gets a very comfortable group the first two days with fellow Spaniard Sergio Garcia and good friend Mickelson, whose brother Tim caddies now for Phil after being both Rahm's first agent and his college coach at ASU.

You can bank on Rahm winning multiple majors. This week is as good a time as any for his first.

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