Fewer than half of the approximately 30 players on the PGA Tour qualified for the 2019 PGA Championship, which is being played in May this year (16-19) at New York’s Bethpage Black, the site of two U.S. Opens in 2002 and ’09.
After his comeback victory in last month’s Masters, 2002 U.S. Open champion Tiger Woods will draw the lion’s share of attention at the 2019 PGA, with only a handful of the Georgians in the field likely to be listed among Tiger’s main challengers in the second major championship of the year.
Brooks Koepka, who won three majors in 2017 and ’18 and tied for second behind Woods in the 2019 Masters, and four-time major champion Rory McIlroy are among the primary contenders along with Woods. McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson all recorded top-10 finishes in the ’09 U.S. Open at Bethpage and all three are in form coming into the PGA, especially McIlroy and Garcia.
Phil Mickelson placed second in the U.S. Open both times Bethpage Black hosted, but has not played well since winning earlier this year at Pebble Beach, the site of the 2019 U.S. Open next month. Mickelson’s only PGA Championship victory came in metropolitan New York at Baltusrol in 2005, but with his 49th birthday approaching, Phil’s hopes of a sixth major appear to be fleeting.
Bethpage Black will play to a par 70 for the PGA Championship with just two par 5s, one of which will play the same length or shorter as two of the par 4s, the other measuring just over 600 yards. Five of the 12 par 4s will play 435 yards or shorter, with three in excess of 500 yards and the other four between 460 and 490. Only one of the par 3s is listed under 200 yards, the 160-yard 14th.
The course will play around 7,440 yards for the PGA, and was considered a bomber-friendly design when the U.S. Open first played at Bethpage in 2002. But Lucas Glover edged out Mickelson and a few others in ’09, and the Black’s reputation as a course that eliminated the hopes of players of less than mammoth length receded.
That is good news for the two players with Georgia ties who likely have the best shot to win among the state’s contingent.
Matt Kuchar (Georgia Tech/St. Simons resident) came into the Byron Nelson Classic, the last PGA Tour stop before the PGA Championship, with a healthy lead in the FedExCup standings. Kuchar has a pair of wins early in the 2018-19 season, and in his last four starts has placed 2nd, 7th, 12th and 2nd, his two runner-up finishes coming in the WGC Match Play and the Heritage Classic, both of which he previously won.
Kuchar’s ball striking this season has been exceptional (2nd in greens in regulation, 7th in fairways hit), and he has a solid record in both the PGA and U.S. Open, notching three top 10s in the PGA since 2010. He missed the cut both times the Open was played at Bethpage, but is not the same player he was prior to his career revival in 2010, and should be among the players to beat.
Kevin Kisner (UGA) beat Kuchar in the finals of the 2019 WGC Match Play and has compiled an outstanding recent record in the PGA, tying for 18th, 7th and 12th the last three years. He was a serious contender at Quail Hollow in 2017, and has demonstrated the ability to handle big courses, even if he is not among the game’s longer hitters. Kisner has been a consistent performer this season, but has no recent high finishes in a stroke play event, and his dismal ranking in Strokes Gained around the green is not a good sign for a course like Bethpage.
Bubba Watson (UGA) has two green jackets from the Masters, but his record in the other two U.S. majors is spotty, Watson lost a playoff in the 2010 PGA at Whistling Straits to Martin Kaymer and has two solid showings in the event since. His U.S. Open record since a tie for fifth in 2005 is not good, but he managed a top-20 showing at Bethpage in ’09 and the PGA of America’s set-up should be more advantageous to him that the more punishing USGA approach. Watson has played reasonably well for much of 2019, and his rank of third in Strokes Gained off the tee makes him a potential threat if he can do something about his shaky putting rank of 168.
Patrick Reed (Augusta State) has an extremely strong recent record in the majors, winning the Masters and tying for fourth in the U.S. Open in 2018 and tying for second in the 2017 PGA at Quail Hollow. His play of late has fallen well short of that level other than some competitive efforts in WGC events, with his last top 10 coming in China in 2018. Reed’s ball striking stats this season have been surprisingly lousy (175 fairways hit, 141 GIR), but his short game has held up, a positive sign if he can get his long game back on track.
Keith Mitchell (UGA/St. Simons resident) has been one of the breakthrough players on the 2019 PGA Tour, winning the Honda Classic and adding a pair of top 10s since including a T8 last week in Charlotte. Mitchell is one of the game’s longer hitters and ranks 11th in Strokes Gained off the tee, but he will have to cut down on his missed fairways and raise the level of his short game to pull off a darkhorse challenge at Bethpage. He played respectably last month in Augusta in his first career start in a major.
Luke List (Augusta resident) is another big hitter who fits into the long shot category on courses where power is a vital attribute, but unlike Mitchell, does not come into the PGA with his game in top form. List had a pair of T4s early this season, but his game has been AWOL since a tie for 10th at Bay Hill. He missed the cut in the last two PGAs as well as last year’s U.S. Open, and his putting rank of 191 has offset his top-10 status in Strokes gained off the tee.
Charles Howell (Augusta native) does not have much of a record of success in majors, with a T10 all the way back in the 2003 PGA his only career top 10. His best finish in the PGA since 2005 was a T26 at Atlanta Athletic Club in 2011, and he had similar showings in last year’s U.S. Open and last month’s Masters, but respectable seems all he is capable of doing in majors. He currently stands 10th in the FedExCup with a win late in 2018 at Sea Island GC, ranking third in GIR stats with eight top-25 finishes, but has missed his last two cuts. He tied for 18th at Bethpage Black early in his career in ’02, but did not qualify for the ’09 Open. Howell withdrew with a reported hip injury after playing 18 holes in the Byron Nelson.
Zach Johnson (St. Simons resident) has a solid track record in the PGA with three top 10s, all between 2009 and ’13, and had a top 20 finish last year. He also has a Masters victory and a British Open title at St. Andrews on his resume, but Bethpage may not be entirely suitable to his game. He missed the cut in the ’09 Open and is not enjoying one of his more successful seasons, with his only strong showings coming on the more favorable venues of Sea Island GC and Sea Pines. His putting stats are not up to their usual standards and he is a distant 182nd in GIR but also 21st in Strokes Gained on approaches.
Brian Harman (Savannah native/UGA/St. Simons resident) is suffering through his poorest season as a pro, and is next to last on the PGA Tour in GIR and in the bottom 20 in birdies as a result. His highlight for the year is a T8 in the Players, but he missed his next four cuts before a top 25 last week in Charlotte. He tied for 13th in the 2017 PGA after sharing second earlier that summer in the U.S. Open.
Patton Kizzire (St. Simons resident) is coming off his best showing in a major last month in Augusta, but hasn’t done much yet in a handful of starts in the PGA and U.S. Open. After two wins in 2017-18 and a spot in the Tour Championship last year, he is not having a successful follow-up season, as his top 10 ranking in putting has not been able to make up for sub-standard ball striking stats.
Michael Thompson (St. Simons resident) is enjoying his best season since 2013, with seven finishes of 16th or better, four of them top 10s, and is 61st in the FedExCup. One of the tour’s better putters (he ranks 17th), he is playing in a major for the first time since 2013 after competing in seven straight in 2012 and ’13. He tied for second in the 2012 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, his fitst start in a major as a pro, and has two other top 25s, including his last PGA appearance in ‘13.
Chesson Hadley (Georgia Tech) got off to a decent start this season and is 63rd in the FedExCup standings after an excellent effort in 2017-18. But he has missed five of his last six cuts, with his stats pretty dismal across the board, and has a limited track record in majors, with no successes thus far.
Stewart Cink (Georgia Tech/Duluth resident) earned a spot in this year’s PGA thanks to a tie for fourth last year at Bellerive, the first time he made the cut in the event since 2010. After missing five straight cuts in March and April, Cink withdrew from the event in Charlotte and was an early WD from the PGA.
Davis Love (St. Simons resident), a past PGA champion, also withdrew prior to the tournament, the fourth time he has done so the past few months.
A number of prominent Georgians did not qualify for the PGA, among them Chris Kirk, who announced earlier this week he is taking a leave of absence from the PGA Tour to deal with alcohol abuse and depression. Kirk, a 4-time PGA Tour winner and former Presidents Cup team member, withdrew one day before his 34th birthday.
Others who failed to qualify include fellow Georgia natives and ex-Bulldogs Russell Henley and Harris English, Augusta’s Vaughn Taylor and recent Georgia Tech standout Ollie Schniederjans, who has struggled throughout the 2018-19 season and is in danger of losing his exempt status for 2019-20.
Following several withdrawals, former Georgia Tech golfer Richy Werenski was the first alternate the weekend before the PGA Championship, and appeared likely to make his first start in a major.