Is Tiger headed for a letdown, and other big PGA Championship questions

Golf

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — How quickly the questions change. Before the Masters, just a month ago, all the focus was on whether Tiger Woods was back enough to win a major. With that question answered, the questions shift to what can he do next, and who can stop him?

As the PGA Championship begins at Bethpage Black, the focus is on Woods, as usual. But there are some others who will draw attention — from Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari, John Daly and Jordan Spieth. Oh, and there are the always-entertaining, never-quiet fans who will be wandering around this Long Island treasure.

We go through the most pressing questions as players step to the tee of the year’s second major.

Can (and will) Tiger win a second consecutive major? If not, where does he finish?

Bob Harig, ESPN senior writer: It is difficult enough to do without all that Tiger put into winning the Masters. The physical and emotional toll of getting to that point, then trying to get back there again, is a lot to ask — especially after not playing any tournament golf now for more than 30 days. That’s not to say that Woods can’t have a good week or even contend, but a top-20 finish seems more realistic.

Michael Collins, ESPN golf analyst: Can he? Yes. I’ll never doubt Tiger in a major again. (You know that whole “fool me once” thing!) Do I believe he’ll win this week? No. I think the time off will bring some rust that will be too difficult to overcome. That being said, I still believe TW will finish between 15th and 25th.

Ian O’Connor, ESPN senior writer: Of course he can, but he won’t. You can’t rule it out, because he’s Tiger Woods. It’s just too much to ask of a 43-year-old coming off one of the most physically and emotionally draining events of his career — without any reps in between. I suspect he’ll have a better shot at Pebble Beach. I’ll say he finishes just inside the top 10 here.

Mark Schlabach, ESPN senior writer: I worry about the layoff and whether he’ll be as laser-focused as he was at Augusta, where he’s had so much success and so many fond memories. It’s his happy place. The demanding walk and cold weather at Bethpage Black will undoubtedly be factors. But if he gets out of the gates fast, anything is possible. I’m thinking he’s in the top 15, but not among the legitimate contenders this week.

Nick Pietruszkiewicz, ESPN.com golf editor: This one might get served back to me on a plate Sunday night, but this is the clunker of the majors. Tiger said this week he never knows how his body will feel day-to-day. The weather is supposed to improve a bit as the week progresses, but this feels like a major in which the body doesn’t react to the conditions and the long walk ahead. This has a middle-of-the-pack feel to it.

2. The past three major champions will be walking side-by-side for the first two rounds. Who will thrive, who will wilt, who won’t care at all among Woods, Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari?

Harig: Koepka will thrive, because that is simply the way he is wired. It is amazing to think how close he came to winning another major at the Masters. As defending champion with Woods getting all the love again, Koepka has that much more motivation. Molinari will not be bothered in the least, and despite the 12th-hole tee shot at Augusta, he has proven to be quite solid and stoic in these situations. Woods is unlikely to wilt, either, and play more of the role of not caring. But if there is ever a time you could see him slip, it might be during the first two rounds here — given how unclear we are about the state of his game.

Collins: None of them will wilt. I think Koepka has the best finish of the three and will have a chance to win Sunday. Molinari may struggle with the length of the course, but his shortcomings won’t be because he’s playing with Tiger. If anyone says Tiger will be “shook” because he’s playing with Molinari and Koepka, they’re probably on their way out of some kind of concussion protocol.

O’Connor: I’m among the many picking Koepka to win, so I’ll say him. He’s likely still kicking himself for missing that putt on the 72nd hole at Augusta that would’ve put him in a playoff with Tiger. I don’t see any of these three wilting, but Koepka is golf’s ultimate badass right now. Gotta love a guy with three majors already talking about getting into double figures.

Schlabach: Koepka and Molinari are both seeking redemption, as both seemed to flinch among the Tiger roars on the back nine at Augusta on Sunday. Koepka has played better than anyone else in majors recently, and yet he never feels like he gets enough respect. I don’t think it’s true, but I think he truly believes it and it’s what makes him tick. Molinari was so machine-like through the first three-and-a-half rounds at Augusta. He didn’t make a mistake until No. 12 in the final round. It was stunning to see his collapse down the stretch. I’d be shocked if it happens again, but he can’t be too comfortable playing with Tiger again in the first two rounds this week.

Pietruszkiewicz: Koepka clearly has a chip on his shoulder and wants not just to win this major, but also stand up to Tiger again while everyone is watching. The intriguing one here is Molinari, who looked untouchable at The Open and over the first 11 holes on Sunday at the Masters before the wheels fell off. If he starts 68-68 that wouldn’t surprise me. If he starts 75-75, I’m not sure that would surprise me, either.

3. OK, the talk around this major is the conditions and the length of the course. But which not-so-big-hitter can think his way around here and sneak off with the Wanamaker Trophy?

Harig: Matt Kuchar. Never a big hitter, Kuchar has done quite well for himself regardless. And Bethpage seems a perfect place for a guy with all the other skills. One thing about such a long course, you can’t expect everyone to hit a lot of greens in regulation. There’s where good wedge play and a sharp short game goes a long way. So look for Kuchar to contend.

Collins: Tommy Fleetwood isn’t known as a bomber, but he’s long enough. Temperature and course conditions (other than the greens) will be similar to a European Tour event. I’m gonna be rooting for Pat Perez. Not only is his game trending since coming back from injury, he promised me one-third of his check if he finished in the top five or better!

O’Connor: There is absolutely no reason to believe Jordan Spieth will win the PGA, except for this one: He’s too good to be this bad forever. Someday he will become Jordan Spieth again, and remind everyone how he won three majors at such a young age. If anyone can suddenly think his way out of a slump and into a career Grand Slam, it’s Spieth.

Schlabach: Xander Schauffele is 33rd in driving distance and 148th in driving accuracy, which makes me a little uneasy going with him. But he already has won twice on Tour this season and finished tied for second at Augusta with a 65 on Friday and 68 on Sunday. The big stage doesn’t seem to bother him, either. He already has four top-six finishes in majors.

Pietruszkiewicz: This one is so hard, mostly because the course is so soft. It’s a long, long trek. Does Rickie Fowler count? He’s 30th on the Tour in driving distance. So, sure, he counts. I’m not sure this is the best fit for his first major, but the PGA has long been a place at which a player walks away with that first career major.

4. What big name will leave you shaking your head at the end of the week?

Harig: Jordan Spieth. Perhaps we’re not even shaking our heads anymore, his struggles have been so common. He still has yet to finish among the top 20 in any tournament this year, and one of the big issues has been the inability to get through rounds without an errant drive or two that leads to a big number. That’s not going to fly at Bethpage.

Collins: Justin Rose scares me right now. He has been the most affected by this new schedule and it seems everything is just off a bit for him. Weird for a guy who was just No. 1 in the world.

O’Connor: John Daly. He is a big name, after all, and he certainly will leave here with many people shaking their heads. Why in the world is he playing? Why in the world did this governing body give him a cart?

Schlabach: It seems like Jordan Spieth’s game is finally rounding into form, but when are we going to start seeing real results? He hasn’t won since the 2017 Open Championship and hasn’t finished better than a tie for 21st in 13 Tour events this season. He finished tied for 29th on his home course at the Byron Nelson.

Pietruszkiewicz: Why do all these answers feel like they are going to backfire on me? While consensus loves Koepka, I’m not sold. The chip-on-the-shoulder thing is fine and all, but sometimes it’s too much. Will standing next to Tiger for at least two days motivate him? Sure. Could it also push him to try to do things outside of his comfort zone? Yes on that, too. Now, he’s not going to miss the cut or anything, but he might not be the major factor everyone seems to think.

5. The fans at Bethpage Black aren’t shy. Who will be the fan favorite this week? Who will be the villain that draws their ire?

Harig: Phil Mickelson is the obvious fan favorite. New York loves the guy, and he enjoys the love along with all the banter. If he gets into contention, it’ll be crazy. Even if he comes up short, he’ll be back for another shot at the U.S. Open next year at Winged Foot — at age 50. As for the villain, John Daly in a golf cart seems obvious, but too easy; Big John is beloved, too. Instead, it’s more likely that some sort of European Ryder Cup goading comes about, whether it be Sergio Garcia or Ian Poulter. In fact, both can probably expect to hear a few things they’d rather not hear.

Collins: Tiger and Phil are always gonna be the beloved ones in New York, but Rickie Fowler will have a large crew following him as well. Sergio Garcia and Patrick Reed will play the role of villain for the NY fans even though it’s unjustified for both of them.

O’Connor: Tiger will be the fan favorite coming off his epic Masters victory, though New Yorkers, of course, love themselves some Phil Mickelson. The villain? Gotta be Sergio Garcia, right? Bethpage fans have done a number on him in the past. If they let up on Sergio in his advanced age, Patrick Reed might fill the void on cue.

Schlabach: Sergio Garcia’s waggles have returned, which isn’t a good thing heading into Bethpage, where he already has a checkered past with New York golf fans. In 2002, Garcia lost his cool and fired a bird at the galleries. He isn’t playing very well, which will make him an easy target for Bronx cheers.

Pietruszkiewicz: I really, really want to say John Daly. But clearly it’ll be Phil Mickelson. Already he’s trolling for support with that tweet he sent out Monday. See for yourself:

This is a no-brainer. It’s Phil, Phil and more Phil. As for the villain, is there really any other choice than Ian Poulter? There’s no way this place and Poulter can get along.

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