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‘Greatest stretch of golf in the history of the game’

PGA Championship signage TPC Harding Park
TPC Harding Park in San Francisco will play host to the 2020 PGA Championship, beginning Thursday.

If you believe CBS’ Jim Nantz, then that claim is more than hyperbole, as the PGA Championship, beginning Thursday at TPC Harding Park, signals the start of something extraordinary in an otherwise forgettable year. It's golf's gold rush, in San Francisco

This could be the start of something big. The late Steve Allen, a late-night comedian and all-around genius, turned that line into a hit song once upon a time, but that timeless title fits this week’s PGA Championship like cable cars fit San Francisco’s inclines.

The fact that a major championship, any major championship, finally is teeing off is practically cause for celebration in the golf world. It has been 12½ months since the last major, the British Open at Royal Portrush won by Irishman Shane Lowry.

Golf hasn’t gone that long without a major being played since World War II, when 27 months elapsed between the 1942 and 1944 PGA Championships. The other majors didn’t resume until 1945. With the British Open in war-torn Great Britain, it was a six-year gap.

It’s too early to start partying over major golf’s return, however. The COVID-19 pandemic keeps returning like a persistent meter maid determined to dole out parking tickets or a prom-dance chaperone trying to keep fun from breaking out. No fans will be onsite at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, and only a limited number of media are allowed. I hadn’t missed a PGA since 1988 but wasn’t credentialed this week. I know a colleague who has attended every PGA and Ryder Cup since 1975. He, too, was not credentialed.

The PGA Championship won’t miss us, and that’s all right.

Spectator-less tournaments have become the new normal for TV viewers. At least this one is finally going to have historical significance. Sorry about that, WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational.

You might already know what’s at stake at TPC Harding Park this week (tee times). Brooks Koepka is trying to be the first player to win three straight PGA Championships since Walter Hagen won four in a row in 1924-27, and it seems realistic. Koepka was back on form last week and finished runner-up to Justin Thomas in Memphis, Tenn., at the aforementioned World Golf Championships event. Like Tiger Woods, Koepka plays for history and has a knack for summoning his best golf on the toughest courses and in the biggest events.

Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth 2020 PGA Championship practice round
Americans Justin Thomas (left) and Jordan Spieth enter this week's PGA Championship from different directions. Thomas, the 2017 PGA champion, won last week's WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational in Memphis, Tenn. Spieth, a 3-time major champion, hasn't won anything since he hoisted the Claret Jug at the 2017 British Open.

Jordan Spieth needs to capture a PGA Championship to complete a career Grand Slam, and he concedes that the task is No. 1 on his to-do list. He’s trending upward of late, but despite having 14 career victories, Spieth is battling through a curious dry spell. His last victory was three years ago, in the British Open at Royal Birkdale.

The next victory by Woods will be No. 83 and move him out of a tie with Sam Snead for first on the PGA Tour’s all-time winning list. This week, it also would be the 16th major title for Woods and revive the hysteria sure to follow in his chase to catch Jack Nicklaus and his 18 major championships. Woods has played sparingly and not been impressive. He finished 68th in February’s Genesis Invitational and 40th in the recent Memorial Tournament but said he’s been playing well at home of late and this week “is what I’ve been gearing up for.”

Lowry is going for back-to-back major titles, which might seem to be an esoteric stat in this year’s COVID-jumbled schedule. “I am the most recent major champion,” Lowry said, “although it doesn’t feel like it because it was so long ago. But, yeah, I’m happy to be back playing a major championship.”

Spain’s Jon Rahm had his stint as the No. 1-ranked player in the world ended after two weeks by Thomas. Rahm could reclaim that top spot this week and renew the musical-chairs donnybrook at the top.

So, there’s all that among the PGA Championship background noise, not to mention the many young stars looking to become first-time major winners.

Harding Park’s thick rough will test the players. The course has what looks like a traditionally penal U.S. Open setup. That is necessary because Harding Park isn’t long by modern Tour standards, at 7,251 yards. It may play longer than that, however, if chilly Bay Area air and fog move into the course, which sits along Lake Merced, between the Pacific Ocean and downtown. Harding Park has relatively flat greens compared with most PGA Tour tracks, though, so prepare to see a lot of holed putts. It’s a great week for an average putter to look like the best putter in the world.

Beyond all that, the professional golf schedule has been backed up like rush hour traffic in I-280 heading into downtown San Francisco.

The PGA Championship serves as the line drawn in the sand. Its message is, Major championship golf is back. It’s as much a hope and a wish as it is a definitive message. The U.S. Open, relocated to September, is still a go at Winged Foot but also without fans. And then there’s the Masters, moved to November, a time when turkey usually is on the menu, not pimento-cheese sandwiches.

Heading into 2021, the majors are stacked up like so many Pringles chips in the familiar tall red container.

CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz put it into perspective in a pre-PGA teleconference: “We are about to enter, starting Thursday, the greatest stretch of golf in the history of the game. In an 11-month stretch, we are going to have seven major championships. We are going to have the playoffs. That includes two Masters, two PGA Championships, the Players Championship. And if you’re hot … you have a chance to make your career in the next 11 months.”

Nantz put just the right amount of polish on this bannister. It’s not hype; it’s just fact.

Right after that 11-month gold rush of majors, there will be a gold rush of a different kind: golf in the Olympics. It is understatement that this next year would be a good time for a player to play the best golf of his life.

“You could see somebody take two, three – who knows? – maybe four of these seven majors,” Nantz said. “I don't think that's what's going to happen. I think it's too level at the top. There are too many great players. But it's a chance to build a resume starting Thursday.”

This PGA Championship will prove whether a major still looks like a major in an empty ballpark. Baseball without fans and vendors hawking beer and hot dogs has seemed odd. Pro basketball has really looked bizarre in vacant arenas.

Golf has had seven more weeks than those two sports to adjust to the new reality. Players have had more time to get used to living “in the bubble,” the testing and competing in the strangely quiet environment.

“There was a vibe out there today [Tuesday], walking nine holes,” CBS commentator Dottie Pepper said. “Players were grinding. It had a different feel than the rest of the tournaments have.”

This could be the start of something big. After 12 months without a major, if this PGA Championship is the start of anything, that will be win.

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