Nothing would explain the madness of golf better than a Dustin Johnson win at the US PGA Championship.
This isn’t to undermine Johnson’s status as one of the finest players in the world, as is obvious, but rather as emphasis of a bizarre spell. Johnson’s post-lockdown form guide shows a tie for 17th, a win, back-to-back rounds of 80, withdrawal from the 3M Open because of injury and four sub-70 scores in a World Golf Championship. Deciphering what he was likely to do at Harding Park, during the first major of 2020, was for the most daring of gamblers.
With 18 holes to play, Johnson sits atop the leaderboard. Of course he does. A wonderful third round of 65, as even included a double bogey at the 9th, was sufficient to see the 36-year-old march through the field. There are so many high calibre players at the business end of proceedings that predictions are a fool’s errand but, for now, Johnson appears the biggest threat to Brooks Koepka’s bid to lift the Wanamaker Trophy for a third successive time. Johnson’s sole major win to date was at the US Open of 2016.
“I have experience in this situation that definitely will help tomorrow,” said Johnson. “I’ve been in the hunt a bunch of times in a major. I’ve got one major, so having that experience is definitely going to be beneficial.
“I’m still going to have to go out and play really good golf. This is a tough golf course, the greens are getting really firm, they are fast. I think the wind is going to blow again tomorrow, so it’s going to play difficult. I look forward to the challenge and I will definitely be relying on a lot of that experience that I have.” It should be noted; not all of those experiences have been positive ones.
At nine under, Johnson heads two outsiders, Cameron Champ and Scottie Scheffler, by a shot. Nineteen players are within five of the lead.
Koepka’s tournament threatened to unravel after bogeys at the 13th, 14th and 15th. He responded in typical style; two birdies in the closing three holes leaves Koepka just two adrift of Johnson. Collin Morikawa and Paul Casey have matched Kopeka’s score. “Everything seems like it is coming together,” warned Koepka.
Bryson DeChambeau has been golf’s most talked about post-lockdown player; not always for the right reasons. Yet the Californian’s bulked up body and huge increase in power is delivering results. A third round of 66 left DeChambeau at six under and well within range of Johnson. “I’m proud of myself that I’ve been able to change my body, change everything, and give myself a chance to win,” said DeChambeau. “That’s something that I think is difficult to do. When somebody goes and changes themselves, there’s usually a little struggle with that. So I really am blessed and proud that I’m able to be healthy and have the ability to compete for a major championship.” Justin Rose and Jason Day are also minus six. So, too, Tommy Fleetwood after he bravely birdied the last to salvage a level par 70.
There wasn’t quite the “ageing isn’t fun” admission as delivered by Tiger Woods in mid-July. At that juncture, the most famous golfer of a generation admitted he was “just trying to hold on” to the remnants of an extraordinary career. Nonetheless, a player who regarded public displays of fallibility as such a horrible concept for so long is developing a fresh, almost consistent theme.
Woods won’t win the 102nd US PGA Championship. There will be no 16th major title, as would bring him within two of the magic number as set by Jack Nicklaus, at Harding Park. A third round of 72 left Woods two over par on aggregate and chasing a top 20 finish at absolute best.
When asked thereafter whether he has a finite number of major opportunities left in his career, the 44-year-old Woods was candid. The changing face of golf was the reference point. “There is,” he said. “There’s not as many as when I first started playing. The reality is that the golf courses are getting bigger. They are getting longer. The margin between making the cut and the lead is a lot smaller than it used to be. Used to be sometimes 12 to 15 shots.
“Now, we had, what, nine shots here? It’s just different. It’s getting tighter and it’s getting harder to win events, but you look at the leaderboard of most major championships, you see the same guys. May not be always the same winners, but you see the same handful of guys are there. They understand how to win major championships, how to win the big events, how to plod their way along, how difficult it is to win these big events.”
To his credit, Woods once again refused to use the lack of galleries – and energy as attached – as a mitigating factor. “I just think that big events, you see the same guys,” he added. “We see Brooks up there again. Guys who understand how to play tough golf courses and tough venues tend to be up there, whether there’s crowds or no crowds.”
Rory McIlroy’s 71 means he, like Woods, is now playing for minor honours. The Northern Irishman is level par for the championship.