The PGA Championship agreed to move to May for the first time in 70 years to help the golf season end before football and to energize a century-old major that was looked upon as the last and the least of the Grand Slam events.
Tiger Woods took care of the latter.
He has golf buzzing again after putting together the final piece on a captivating comeback by winning the Masters. Eleven years since he last won a major, two years after a fourth back surgery and with no guarantees he would play again, Woods ushered in a new era of Tigermania.
For years, Woods was talked about in the past tense. Now it’s about the future.
And the wait for the next major is shorter than ever.
“We were very excited about the May change before Tiger made his fireworks in Georgia,” said Seth Waugh, CEO of the PGA of America. “We think we made a great decision, but we’d rather be lucky than good, in terms of what he did in the Masters. We thought it was smart. It looks brilliant now.”
Even as memories are fresh of those impulsive chants from a Sunday unlike any other at Augusta National — “Tiger, Tiger, Tiger!” — the 101st PGA Championship is set to begin May 16 on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park on Long Island, New York.
For all the talk about whether Woods authored the greatest comeback in sports, perhaps the bigger question is how much he has left. Anticipation now is based on results, not just wishful thinking.
He is the betting favorite at the PGA Championship and for the first time in five years has a mathematical chance to reach No. 1 in the world. The more significant number is 18. That’s the number of majors Jack Nicklaus won, the record Woods — who won his 15th at the Masters — can contemplate again.
“It took him an entire career to get to 18,” Woods said. “So now that I’ve had another extension to my career — one that I didn’t think I had a couple of years ago — if I do things correctly and everything falls my way, yeah, it’s a possibility. I’m never going to say it’s not.”
Woods made his comments to GOLFTV, the Discovery-owned channel with whom he has an endorsement. His only other public comments since the Masters were at the White House Rose Garden when President Donald Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Woods said at the ceremony his Masters victory was “the highlight of what I’ve accomplished so far in my life on the golf course.”
Bethpage Black brings back strong memories.
The public course on Long Island is where Woods first chased the calendar Grand Slam in 2002, winning the Masters and then going wire-to-wire in the U.S. Open at Bethpage. Lucas Glover won the 2009 U.S. Open on a sloppy Bethpage course that took on so much rain it took five days to get in 72 holes.
The common denominator at both was Phil Mickelson settling for second at the two majors held at Bethpage.
Mickelson made a strong bid to overcome a five-shot deficit to Woods, and he was tied for the lead with five holes to play in 2009. Cheers alone suggest Mickelson is the people’s choice for majors in the New York area. He missed the cut in his lone appearance ahead of the PGA Championship but still comes in with confidence from a pair of runner-up finishes in majors at Bethpage.
“I think the best thing for me is the way the people there treat me,” Mickelson said. “They treat me so well, and I feel that is an advantage. If I can get my game sharp and play well, there is a good chance that energy can get me to the finish line.”
Brooks Koepka is the defending champion and will try to join Woods as the only back-to-back winners of the PGA Championship since it switched to stroke play in 1958. Woods did it twice. Koepka held off a noisy charge by Woods at Bellerive in St. Louis last year to win by one. At the Masters, Koepka finished one shot behind Woods.
“I got the better of him at St. Louis and he got the better of me at Augusta,” Koepka said. “I texted him on the way home on Sunday, on the flight home. Just said, ‘Congrats.’ That was awesome, fun to see. He responded with, ‘We’re 1-1.’ Hopefully, we’ll make that 2-1 very shortly.”
Adding to the anticipation of the PGA Championship is that it’s more than just Woods and Koepka.
Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world, also was a runner-up at the Masters. That might have been the toughest major for Woods to win because it was the first time he had a half-dozen players to contend with on the back nine. In his previous 14 majors, he never had to worry about more than one or two players, if any.
Jordan Spieth would love to be in the mix this time around, considering what’s at stake.
This is the third time Spieth comes to the PGA Championship with a chance to become only the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam. Rory McIlroy missed his fifth attempt at the Masters. Mickelson gets his fifth chance at the U.S. Open next month at Pebble Beach.
Recent form would suggest a struggle for Spieth. He hasn’t won in his last 43 events worldwide. He hasn’t been in contention since he played in the final group of the British Open last year.
“I think I’ll be flying under the radar compared with previous years, just based on results of the last year or so,” he said. “But I don’t mind that.”
Maybe it helps that the PGA Championship is no longer the last major of the year, in August when temperatures approach triple digits and the season already feels long. The forecast next week is for temperatures in the upper 60s to lower 70s, which might make this feel more like the West Coast Swing.
Bethpage Black is still a tough. There’s a reason it has a sign posted on the first tee that says, “Warning: The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which is recommended only for highly skilled golfers.” In two majors, only six players have finished under par.
It might be different for the PGA Championship, although Kerry Haigh, who sets up the course for the PGA, says the fairways will be the same width as they were for the U.S. Open except on No. 18.
What likely won’t change is the energy outside the ropes. Bethpage is notorious for its vocal crowds, and if bringing a major championship back to their public golf course isn’t enough, they now have the Tiger Woods they were used to seeing.