The PGA Championship has all the trappings of a big celebration this year.
Thanks to a Sunday afternoon on the other side of the Atlantic, it feels even bigger.
This is the 100th edition of the only major championship restricted to professionals, and it’s a farewell to the muggy heat of summer. The PGA Championship is leaving its August date after some 40 years and moving to May. Jordan Spieth was always sure to get plenty of attention as he gets a second crack at trying to complete the career Grand Slam, a feat achieved by only five other players, never at the PGA Championship.
And now Tiger Woods is in focus like never before.
Just the sight of his name atop the leaderboard in the final round of the British Open, even if it was there alone for only about 30 minutes, was enough to turn cynics into cheerleaders. Woods has gone 10 years, five surgeries and one divorce since his last major. He started the year with uncertainty about his health and his swing. He reaches the final major without a victory, but with a game that suggests another trophy — even the biggest variety — might not be far off.
He finished one shot behind at the Valspar Championship in March. He finished three shots behind at Carnoustie.
“I think that I went from just hoping to be able to play the tour,” Woods said. “Now that I feel that I can the play the tour, I certainly can win again. I’ve had an opportunity to win a couple times this year. I had a great chance at Valspar early in the year, and even a week ago (at the British Open) I had a great shot at it. Yeah, my game has gotten better and good enough where I feel like I can win again.”
The PGA Championship returns to Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, Missouri, and a victory for Woods would be his fifth Wanamaker Trophy, tying the record held by Jack Nicklaus and Walter Hagen, and his 15th major championship.
Bellerive is a course Woods doesn’t know very well, and he’s not alone.
It last hosted the PGA Championship in 1992 when Nick Price won the first of his three majors. Bellerive also was the site of the BMW Championship in 2008, which Woods missed while recovering from knee surgery. Only 13 players from that event are in the field for the PGA.
Woods was last at Bellerive for the tournament it didn’t host — the American Express Championship in 2001, canceled because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That was the only time Woods played the course, a Tuesday practice round with Mark Calcavecchia in which a PGA Tour security official was filling him in on the attacks as he played. Woods drove 17 hours home to Florida by himself the next day.
“Pretty much everything was a blur,” he said when asked about his recollections of the golf course.
Justin Thomas is the defending champion and one of the few players who has seen Bellerive, back in June as part of his media promotion tour. Based on its spot on the schedule, the PGA Championship rarely allows time for players to get a preview.
The British Open ended on July 22, and players like world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka went straight to Canada, and then Ohio for a World Golf Championship. Woods was in Switzerland on a holiday.
“I contemplated going over to Bellerive for a day and checking it out,” Rory McIlroy said. “But I told myself I’ve never done it before for a PGA and I’ve won it a couple times and I played well. So why would I change what I’ve always done.”
Spieth was in Spain after the British Open for his bachelor’s party and said he would see Bellerive when he arrived on Monday. He has heard a little about it and said he expected “a normal PGA.”
Just what is normal?
“It’s like a long, narrow, you’ve still got to shoot 10 to 14 under type of thing,” Spieth said. “The PGA reminds me of a few tour stops, like Congressional, and maybe a little bit like Akron. It’s not as tricky, just really cool golf courses you’re only going to see once every 10 years. A long, difficult PGA Tour course with longer rough.”
Bellerive already has been the scene of one career Grand Slam.
That’s where Gary Player won the 1965 U.S. Open to become the fourth player to sweep the four professional majors. Spieth gets his second try. He won the British Open last summer, headed to Quail Hollow and could feel the attention on his bid to join the most elite group in golf. The feeling was fleeting. He was 11 shots behind going into the weekend and never got much closer.
This year feels different, perhaps because expectations are lower. Spieth still hasn’t won a tournament since Royal Birkdale last summer. He lost a share of the 54-hole lead at Carnoustie two weeks ago, although he felt his game — especially the short game — finally rounding into form.
“I played a better Sunday at the British Open this year than last year, minus a couple of holes,” he said, referring to his birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie stretch on the back nine when he won the claret jug in 2017. “I felt better about my game this year. I just didn’t end up with the trophy, and therefore, it doesn’t create the same buzz.”
Spieth turned 25 last week. He is getting married this year. He is in no rush.
“I’m more big picture,” he said. “This (PGA) course changes every year. At some point, I’m going to be in form on a course that is good for me and the stars will line up and I’ll have to executive coming the stretch. And it could be this year.”
Otherwise, it will be in May. That will be the new month for the PGA Championship, which allows it to move to courses in the South, while shutting out venues like Whistling Straits in Wisconsin and Hazeltine in Minnesota.
It no longer will be the fourth major on the schedule. The PGA of America hopes that its championship will get enough new energy that it won’t be considered the least of the four majors. Not everyone feels that way, least of all Thomas.
“I’m perfectly content with grabbing my fourth of the four majors, if you will, every year,” Thomas said.
Spieth might want it even more, considering what’s at stake.
So, too, would Woods.