Players of interest: Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Collin Morikawa and Rory McIlroy.
For the first time in 15 years, Southern Hills CC is set to host the PGA Championship. Phil Mickelson is out, but Tiger Woods appears ready to play at the site of his PGA Championship victory in 2007. And many other top players arrive in great form, which makes this week’s event enticing for golf gamblers and fantasy players.
To break it all down, we’ve once again convened a roundtable of veteran golf writers along with golf gambling and fantasy experts from Rotowire.com to offer their unique insight and handicap this year’s field. Joining this edition: Rotowire’s Len Hochberg and Greg Vara, and Morning Read’s Bob Harig, Gary Van Sickle and Jeff Ritter. On to the questions:
Tiger Woods is set to return for his second event since his car crash in early 2021. He made the cut at the Masters. What do you expect from Woods this week? Bob Harig, Morning Read: The expectations should remain low, just as they were at the Masters. Making the cut would be a tremendous achievement again. Woods will have a few factors going for him at Southern Hills that he did not at Augusta National. The walk is far less strenuous, and the temperatures are expected to be in the 80s. All of that helps tremendously. How much has he been able to improve his health and his game since the Masters? That is what we will find out.
Len Hochberg, Rotowire: Another made cut. Another bit of a fade on the weekend as it becomes harder and harder on his injured leg/ankle/foot. Woods finished 47th at the Masters. Could see him a little higher this week.
Gary Van Sickle, Morning Read: Fire up those Tiger Trackers. Tiger will once again be a story every day no matter what he shoots. I expect his short game to be sharper than at the Masters, and I expect him to pull off a top-20 finish. Which would be remarkable.
Greg Vara, Rotowire: I didn’t expect much from Tiger at Augusta, but I was pleasantly surprised at how well he played early in the week. As for this week, my worry is that even if he’s contending, the grind of a major on Sunday will be too much. He’s the closest thing to a cyborg that the PGA Tour has ever seen, so perhaps he can play four solid rounds on a bum leg, but I’ll have to see it to believe it. Top 10 is in play, but I can’t imagine he has enough to win this week.
Jeff Ritter, Morning Read: I’m still amazed he made the cut at Augusta, but Southern Hills is a big, brawny course, and not a spot where he’ll be able to lean on experience and guile. I’m encouraged by the early reports that his health is progressing. He certainly has the speed in his swing to keep up this week, so he’s facing another battle of attrition and stamina, in addition to the course itself. I’d bet him to make the cut – which would once again be incredible – but not much more than that.
The list of “Best Golfers Without a Major” is shrinking after Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm and Hideki Matsuyama joined the list of recent breakthroughs. Among today’s group of players without a major, who do you think is most overdue to win one?
Len Hochberg: Shrinking? That’s the beauty of lists like this — somebody always comes along to take their place. I wouldn’t say that anyone is ever due or overdue to win a major, or even a tournament. It’s just not a given, no matter what things look like. That said, the highest-ranked players without a major are No. 5 Patrick Cantlay and No. 6 Viktor Hovland. Cantlay has been remarkably mediocre in majors and Hovland really needs to improve his play around the greens to contend (especially this week). But Cantlay does seem like the answer.
Bob Harig: Cameron Smith, and it’s mostly because he’s won the next-best thing: the Players Championship. Smith’s victory at TPC-Sawgrass in March was confirmation of what we already knew about the Aussie. He’s a world-class player who when he refines a few aspects could be contending in majors for years. In just five Masters appearances he already has four top 10s, and were it not for dunking one at the 12th on Sunday last month, perhaps he’d already have a major.
Gary Van Sickle: It’s the Patrick Cantlay Frown versus the Cameron Smith Mullet. Neither has played in all that many majors so far and both have the short games to win any of the four majors. The Frown has been around longer than The Mullet, so maybe it’s time to go to Frown Town this week.
Greg Vara: This is always an interesting question because there are two ways to slice it. If we are looking at the best resume, then it’s either Lee Westwood or Matt Kuchar, but if we are talking about who is the best golfer right now, which by the way I find a much more interesting conversation, then I’m siding with Patrick Cantlay by a smidge over Xander Schauffele. With that said, I doubt these two will be on the list a couple years from now, while Westwood and Kuchar appear doomed to stay on it forever.
Jeff Ritter: Yes, it’s looking grim for Westy and Kooch, so some of these young guys would serve themselves well to get off this list ASAP. For me Schauffele is the answer, as he’s put himself in position at majors a few times but remains overdue for win, given the amount of time he’s spent ranked the world top 10 in the past few years.
Southern Hills hasn’t staged a PGA since Woods prevailed by three shots in 2007. What are your thoughts on the course, and what type of player should expect to do well there?
Bob Harig: This is not the same course Woods won on in 2007. Many of the trees have been cut back, and while it is stout at 7,556 yards, par 70, it is not as much target-oriented as was required 15 years ago. Temperatures are expected to be warm, in the upper 80s at least the first two days, and if Tulsa can avoid rain, it should be firm and fast, which favors players who are hitting it solid and avoiding the rough – although the fairways are longer than in 2007 and there are runoffs from the greens. Holding them would seem important. While the course is long, it’s not necessarily an overriding factor. Woods hit few drivers in ’07, and that suggests the course does not necessarily favor any style. Which has the potential for an intriguing and wide-open tournament.
Len Hochberg: In watching an interview with Gil Hanse, who oversaw the 2019 renovation, the course should play far different, with much more forgiving fairways but absolutely diabolical greens and areas around the greens. At par 70 and more than 7,500 yards, length obviously helps, especially when you can let fly to wider fairways. But it sure sounds as if this tournament will be won and lost closer to the hole. A guy with moderate length and a superior short game sounds better than the longest hitters.
Gary Van Sickle: All the doglegs and the smallish greens say iron play and short game are the keys. Players all lay up to similar spots on the doglegs, then it’s an iron-hitting contest. The guys who miss the green have a scrambling contest. So good iron players such as Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson, Shane Lowry and Justin Rose are the model. Also, scramblers such as Cam Smith, Jordan Spieth and Scheffler fit the profile.
Greg Vara: The course has gone under a major renovation (pardon the pun) since the PGA was last there in 2007, putting more of an emphasis on approach shots and short game vs. distance off the tee. As you might expect, a quick search on the highest rated golfers in strokes-gained approach to the green reveals some of the best players on the PGA Tour. Of note this week we have Will Zalatoris, Viktor Hovland and Justin Thomas currently in the top 5 in that category.
Jeff Ritter: The areas around the greens are tricky, and while scrambling will be important I don’t think this event will be won from the valleys below the putting surfaces. The fairways are relatively wide, so I learn toward approach shots as the primary stat to mine for contenders. You could convince me to bet on just about any of the Tour’s current top-8 players in strokes gained approaches: Will Zalatoris, Russell Henley, Viktor Hovland, Shane Lowry, Justin Thomas, Hideki Matsuyama, Cam Smith and Collin Morikawa.
What current favorite, odds 40-1 or better in the SI Sportsbook, could disappoint this week?
Bob Harig: Brooks Koepka (40-1) is the easy choice here. He missed the cut at the Masters, where he was said to be dealing with a hip issue, and hasn’t played since, pulling out of the AT&T Byron Nelson on the morning of the first round. If Koepka withdraws, another possible disappointment would be Dustin Johnson, who we keep waiting to get back to his usual form. Johnson hasn’t contended in months.
Jeff Ritter: Agree on Koepka. I’m also skipping Dustin Johnson (22-1) this week, mostly because I like a few names around him a little more.
Len Hochberg: Viktor Hovland (25-1 on the SI Sportsbook) is ranked 210th on Tour in strokes gained: around-the-green. That would be dead last. Not sure how he can contend — even though he is an elite driver/long iron player. He couldn’t crack the top 25 at Augusta, another course where a short game is mandatory.
Gary Van Sickle: I’m still surprised that Justin Thomas didn’t become a world-beater after winning that 2017 PGA. He’s got all the shots but he doesn’t seem to be able to trust the putter. In 25 majors, he’s had only two top-5 finishes, one of them that PGA victory. Thomas should be giving himself more good chances in the prime of his career right now. So maybe he’ll continue his disappointing trend at Southern Hills.
Greg Vara: I could make a case for every single player at 40-1 or better to actually win this week with the exception of Brooks Koepka. I realize this might be low-hanging fruit because he withdrew from the Byron Nelson, but aside from that, Koepka ranks outside the top 100 in strokes-gained approach to the green and he’s been uncharacteristically bad in big events this season.
What long shot, odds 60-1 or longer, do you think could surprise? Len Hochberg: Max Homa at 60-1 on the SI Sportsbook seems like the obvious choice, even with a terrible majors record. But since you asked who “could surprise” and didn’t ask who “could win,” I like Harold Varner at 100-1. He’s blown himself up with rounds in the 80s at the 2019 PGA and at the Masters just last month, but he still tied for 23rd at Augusta. Imagine how much higher on the leaderboard he’d have been if that 80 was even just a 75. The ultimate long shot seems to be Matthew Wolff at 125-1 — he could finish 10th or 150th.
Jeff Ritter: Big-hitting rookie Cameron Young (70-1) is on the rise and I think may be ready for a top 10 at a major and possibly more. Also, as I mentioned earlier, Russell Henley (100-1) is a sneaky-elite iron player, the stat I most value this week.
Bob Harig: Keegan Bradley. The 2011 PGA champion – playing in his first major at the time – has shown numerous signs of good play, contending at the Players and again at the Wells Fargo Championship, where he tied for second behind Max Homa. Bradley played beautifully in horrible weather during the middle two rounds, and seems to have finally found comfort on the greens after struggling without the anchored putting stroke.
Greg Vara: Corey Conners was struggling as recently as this past February, when he had a stretch of three missed cuts in four starts. But he’s righted the ship over the past couple months and looks ready to make a move. It wasn’t that long ago that most of us had Conners and Scottie Scheffler on the same level and while Scheffler has shot into the stratosphere, Conners still has a chance to make a big move this year. He also ranks inside the top 50 in SG-approach, and he posted a T6 at the Masters last month.
Gary Van Sickle: Kevin Kisner drives it straight and chips and putts like a bandit. At 150-1, he could pull off a shocker. Besides losing the Match Play final to Scheffler, he was third in the Hawaiian Open and a quiet fourth at the Players. The man just gets his ball in the hole.
There can only be one: who’s your pick to win?
Greg Vara: I picked Scheffler at the Masters because none of the elite players were near their peak heading into the week, but that’s not the case this week as Spieth and Rahm have won recently and McIlroy and JT appear to be rounding into form. With all of these elite golfers at or near top form, who to pick? How about someone who’s not even peaking right now? Yep, I’m going off script and going with my gut. Collin Morikawa is my pick this week. He’s not in the best form right now, but he’s played well enough over the past couple months that I think he’ll be fine. What I really like about Morikawa is his precise ball striking and his major mentality. Morikawa is one of a few guys that I trust down the stretch if he’s in contention at a major.
Bob Harig: Jordan Spieth. The missed cut at the Masters really annoyed him, and he came right back and won his next start at the RBC Heritage. He took several weeks off afterward, had a good week at his hometown Byron Nelson after visiting Southern Hills and giving it favorable reviews. This is his week to complete the career Grand Slam.
Len Hochberg: My preseason pick for the Masters was Cam Smith (close!). My preseason pick for the PGA was Jon Rahm. That doesn’t seem very likely at this point, given Rahm’s stunning short-game woes. And since Southern Hills doesn’t appear to be the typical PGA Championship driving brute, and how play on and around the greens will be paramount … that’s right: Cam Smith.
Jeff Ritter: Scottie Scheffler is the hottest golfer on the planet, and he’s risen to No. 1 by winning on a variety of courses. If he can maintain his current form, he’s the man to beat. And despite all that, he will indeed be beaten – by Rory McIlroy, who rolled out of Augusta with confidence and looks ready for a major moment sometime soon. This is as good a spot as any.
Gary Van Sickle: Tiger and Phil! There, now that I have your attention, the winner will be Collin Morikawa. His iron play will make the difference at Southern Hills, a true second-shot golf course and Morikawa is as good as, if not better than, anyone else at second shots. I’d love to see Scheffler win and fire up some Grand Slam talk, though.
Jeff Ritter is the General Manager of Buffalo Media Groupe, which includes The Morning Read, now the golf section of SI.com, and the daily newsletter The First Call. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Society of American Travel Writers, the MIN Magazine Awards, and the Golf Writers Association of America, among others. He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a master’s from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980, following the tours to 125 men’s major championships, 14 Ryder Cups and one sweet roundtrip flight on the late Concorde. He is likely the only active golf writer who covered Tiger Woods during his first pro victory, in Las Vegas in 1997, and his 81st, in Augusta.
Bob Harig is a golf writer for Morning Read/SI.com and the author of the book “Tiger and Phil: Golf’s Most Fascinating Rivalry,’’ which was published in April 2022 and can be ordered here.