This time last year, the event of the season was about to play out, and nobody had any idea. Phil Mickelson ultimately outlasted Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen in one of the great major championships in the history of the sport, and there was no hint — no inkling whatsoever — that any of it was about to unfold.
That is what makes major championships so great. They can be as unexpected as they are enthralling and as surprising as they are compelling. Mickelson won’t defend his title this year (more on that below), but even in his absence there is still plenty to be excited about as the 2022 PGA Championship begins this week at Southern Hills.
Major championships are almost always a thrill, and that’s been especially true of PGAs over the past decade (more on that below, too). How could it not be? It’s the entirety of another sport’s playoffs all wrapped up into a single week. Twists and turns, titillating triumph and (sometimes) tragedy seem to follow golf’s biggest events around during the four biggest weeks of the year.
With Tiger Woods back in the mix, Jordan Spieth again going for the career slam and Rory McIlroy playing some of his best golf in years, it will be intriguing to see how this one plays out.
Here are 10 storylines to follow throughout the PGA Championship this week. And just remember, this time last year, Mickelson wouldn’t have been part of anybody’s top 50 storylines. So, while these are the key narratives entering the tournament, surely many others will emerge throughout another terrific major championship week.
The storyline — Spieth slam? It gets lost in the handful of slam attempts we see every year, but Spieth will try for his own career grand slam at Southern Hills this week. It will be his sixth attempt at this event, and the closest Spieth has come to this point was a strange T3 in 2019 at Bethpage in what was perhaps the best putting week of his life (2.66 strokes gained on the greens, double the event’s second-best number). He’s lost to one golfer in two tournaments since the Masters and takes a ton of confidence into a championship that, along with the U.S. Open, is probably least suited to his style. The thing to watch with Spieth this week is that he’s driving the ball tremendously, but the rest of his game hasn’t quite caught up yet. If it does, and especially if that happens in a major week, it’s going to be an absolute show.
2. Phil’s absence: Lefty failing to show at the Masters in April got buried by everything Tiger brought to the table, which was a lot. It’s far more difficult to ignore his absence when Mickelson is the defending champion of the PGA, presumably healthy and yet still absent from the second major of the year. His absence won’t overshadow the week, but this tournament did present an opportunity for Mickelson to move forward and perhaps a bit beyond beyond what got him into this mess in the first place (which is a long story, if you haven’t heard it). He failed to take that chance. The overwhelming reaction here, for me, is sadness. I’m sad that we don’t get a classic Phil presser as defending champ, sad we don’t get a proper twilight of his career, and sad that the news cycle of the LIV Golf sideshow is invading the air of best championships in the world.
Ben Hogan won the only Open Championship he ever played, in 1953.Before Mickelson next week, Hogan at the 1954 Open is the last instance I can find of a defending men’s major champion who is otherwise healthy physically not defending his title.
3. Tiger runs it back: After Woods limped to a finish at the Masters, I voiced that he should break until the Open Championship in July. Well, Big Cat had different plans. While his presence at Southern Hills won’t be quite as big of a circus as it was at Augusta National — partly because we’ve already seen him and partly because the Masters is the brightest stage in the sport — it’s still meaningful that he’s in Tulsa. He won’t win, and he likely won’t contend, but Tiger was the champion the last time a major was played on this golf course, and it’s always nice to get those players in the field a decade or more later (in this instance, 15 years). Expectations for Woods should be informed by what he did at the Masters. Making the weekend and finishing tournaments is a win when you almost lost your leg the year before, and that’s where Woods resides. Still, he’ll provide some additional juice and excitement to a tournament that needs little.
Swing looks smooth, moving better and no shortage of power. Ready to go for the @PGAChampionship pic.twitter.com/ylGulukbls
4. Scottie Scheffler’s reign: Scheffler has won four of the seven significant events of the year so far in terms of strength of field. He’s also been a low-key menace at major championships in general. Though his Masters gets all the recognition, he’s finished in the top 20 in each of his last seven starts, which his earned him co-favorite honors alongside last year’s U.S. Open champion, Jon Rahm. There is not a metric in golf you can point to that says anything other than that Scheffler has been the best player in the world this year, and on top of all of that, he also won the Big 12 individual title at Southern Hills back in 2015.
5. Justin Thomas’ drought: It’s been insinuated a lot over the last few years, but it’s a fair thing to say (mostly because J.T. himself has said it): Thomas is not competitive enough at major championships. It’s not so much that he only has one major victory. That can be a function of luck and happenstance. It’s more that — other than the PGA Championship he won in 2017 and perhaps the U.S. Open that same year when he shot 63 at Erin Hills — can you remember him being a real factor down the stretch at a major? His record is OK (six top 10s in 25 starts), but he should be executing more near-misses or even hits. Southern Hills should theoretically set up perfectly for him — CBS analyst Dottie Pepper said last week that it reminded her of Augusta National in that it has big greens but small landing spots — and it would be great to see him get into contention on a Sunday this time around.
6. Brooks Koepka’s health: One of the stars of last year’s PGA Championship is up in the air for this one. While four-time champion Koepka is still in the field to start the week, he was a late scratch from last week’s AT&T Byron Nelson and has not played since he missed the cut at the Masters. If he tees it up, he has to be considered one of the biggest forces in the event. In the last four PGAs, he’s finished, from most to least recent, T2-T29-1-1. While PGA’s probably differ the most from year to year in setup, this has been an event he’s clearly been comfortable playing, adding a T4 and T5 in the years leading into this four-year tear. Of course, that might be less of a function of the PGA and more of a function of majors in general. In his last 25 starts at majors, he has 15 top 10s, including four wins and three other runner-up finishes.
7. Rory? A four-time major winner and two-time PGA Championship winner, McIlroy has been under-the-radar good so far this year. He takes a runner-up finish at the Masters and a top-five at the Wells Fargo Championship into Southern Hills, and every category of his game is clicking nicely. The big thing for McIlroy this week will be whether he can get off to a hot start early. In all four of his major championship wins, he’s either led or been within one stroke of the lead after 18 holes. At Augusta, McIlroy preached the importance of merely staying in the tournament early, but his reality is that he’s lit the field up early when he’s gone on to victory. Among all the important first rounds to monitor that could inform us how this week will play out, McIlroy’s is at the top of the list.
8. String of elite PGAs: I made the argument early in the year that the PGA has been the most exciting major championship over the last decade. Whether that’s actually true or measurable is tougher to say, but that it’s even a reasonable conversation is remarkable. The PGA, for many reasons, has always been thought of as the least of the four majors, but again, for many reasons, it has done a remarkable job of rebranding itself between the Masters and U.S. Open as perhaps the most fun, most fair test of them all. It’s given us Rory’s career summer (2014), Spieth’s near three-major season (2015), J.T.’s first (2017), Brooks-Tiger (2018), Brooks-D.J. (2019), Morikawa magic (2020) and Phil-Brooks (2021). I don’t know how much more we can ask this time around, but it’s a tournament that seems to always deliver.
9. String of thoroughbreds: Here’s a list of all the major champions since the start of 2017.
Where are the holes? I suppose you could quibble with Molinari, Lowry, Reed or Woodland, but in terms of five-year runs of major champions, I imagine there aren’t many better (and certainly there are plenty that are worse). The top of the game is loaded right now, and so it has to be disconcerting for the Kevin Nas and Seamus Powers to go into a week like this and consider all the players they have to beat. It doesn’t mean it can’t happen, and at some point this run of outrageously good champs will be broken by somebody who is nowhere near the top 100 in the world. That’s part of the romanticism of golf, of course. But it’s a fool’s errand to go out and try to predict what’s going to happen.
10. Let it blow: One of the defining characteristics of last year’s PGA Championship was how lusty the wind was throughout. Oklahoma is not exactly known for its shortage of wind, and the forecast right now is calling for plenty of it. That means a few things, but primarily, it indicates ball-strikers will thrive, which is normally the case at major championships but even more so at tournaments where wind plays a prominent factor. PGA course setup legend Kerry Haigh won’t make the golf course silly, but Southern Hills’ redesign combined with some weather that will seemingly protect it may mean we get an elite hitters-only leaderboard just as we did a year ago.