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2020 PGA stakes its claim as a San Francisco giant

2020 PGA Championship 1st round
The majestic views framing TPC Harding Park give the PGA Championship a big-time feel during Thursday’s 1st round, despite the absence of spectators. And the quality of the golf stands out, as well.

TPC Harding Park embraces 1st major championship of the season, and the touring pros love the Bay Area muni right back

The question was answered.

Golf hadn’t played a major championship in more than a year, but would a tournament played on a municipal course without fans, stands, roars, cheers and the game’s traditional color and pageantry actually feel like a major championship?

Yes. It took only half a round Thursday to recognize the 102nd PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park for what it is. If it walks like a major and quacks like a major … it’s a major.

Maybe it’s the trees. The towering Monterey cypress trees majestically line TPC Harding Park’s fairways like so many giant gladiators.

Maybe it’s the camera shots from the blimp. No city looks better from the air than San Francisco. Though Harding Park is a flattish course on a gentle peninsula made far more interesting by its imposing trees, it becomes postcard-worthy when framed from above along scenic Lake Merced. From the blimp, this just looked like a major.

Maybe it’s the leaderboard. The cream didn’t rise to the top Thursday; it already was there. Former major champions were everywhere you looked. Former PGA champion Jason Day posted the low morning round, a 5-under 65, and Brendon Todd matched it in the afternoon’s tougher and windier conditions, but there were other familiar names, too, some of them surprising (scores / tee times).

Take Martin Kaymer … please. He won the 2010 PGA in a playoff after Dustin Johnson’s “Bunkergate” ruling. He won a Players Championship and a U.S. Open in 2014 and reached No. 1 in the world. Kaymer is a European Ryder Cup hero, but he hasn’t won since that ’14 Open at Pinehurst. Yet there he was at Harding Park, holing a wack-a-doodle 47-foot eagle putt at the par-5 fourth hole, his 13th of the day after starting on the back nine, and shooting 66.

One of the Zach Johnsons also shot 66. It was the Zach Johnson who once won a Masters and a British Open, not the club professional from Salt Lake City with the same name. That other Zach shot 82. The Zach you know drove it beautifully and looked poised to turn around his downward-trending world ranking of 210.

Maybe it’s Tiger Woods. He birdied two of the first four holes and gave the year’s first major a shot of televised adrenaline. Woods made five birdies and looked like his old deadly self on the greens but missed a few too many fairways and settled for 68. But he’s under par, and he’s Tiger Woods. That’s enough for most viewers.

Mainly, you can gauge a major championship by whether Brooks Koepka is in the hunt. It doesn’t matter whether he’s got a troublesome left knee or had to make over his putting stroke last week with the help of putting czar Phil Kenyon. When a major rolls around, Koepka’s game rolls into shape.

Koepka won four of the past 10 majors, including the 2018 and 2019 PGAs. He’s going for a three-peat. On Thursday, like a relentless Internet search engine, there he was again, holing clutch par putts, hitting tight iron shots and finding fairways. He is among nine players tied for third at 66.

The difference between Koepka and a young Woods is that if Woods were in this position after one round at a major, his competitors would be gulping and saying, “Uh-oh,” and some media types would clamor to hand him the trophy. Only a handful of non-TV media are allowed onsite but Koepka’s start and the fact that he’s in Three-Peat territory did not go unnoticed.

“The run of golf he’s played in the majors has been incredible,” said Rory McIlroy, a former world No. 1 whose last major victory came at the PGA six years ago. “He seems to find his comfort zone in these tournaments, for whatever reason. I think we’re all just lucky he doesn’t find it every other week.”

To translate for McIlroy, who shot 70: Uh-oh.

Koepka is oozing the same confidence he always oozes at majors. If it’s an act, it’s a convincing one.

“I feel right where I need to be,” Koepka said after his round in answer to a question about how his game has progressed since the PGA Tour resumed play in early June amid the coronavirus pandemic. “I’m ready to play.”

That wasn’t the case after the 3M Open a few weeks ago, when he missed the cut. He spent that Sunday working with coach Pete Cowen, then Monday with coach Claude Harmon III.

“To be honest, it was probably the first time I hit 40 balls and there was a club 70 yards behind me. I chucked it and then threw one in front of me. I was pretty heated, to say the right word.”

Then the coach and student went on a high-tech mat with sensors that measure weight distribution and transfer. At impact, Koepka wants to have 70 percent of his weight on his left side, but the mat indicated that he had 70 percent on his right side. “We knew what we had to do,” he said.

That was the start of the path that led to his runner-up finish last week at the FedEx St. Jude Invitational and his return to major form at Harding Park.

“I’m excited for the next three days,” Koepka said. “I think I can definitely play a lot better. I just need to tidy up a few things and we’ll be there come Sunday on the back nine.”

Koepka is like Woods in that they play for history. The regular PGA Tour stops are fine, sure, and a W is a W, as Woods says. But major championships are what get remembered. With his major-championship run, starting at the 2017 U.S. Open, Koepka is aware of what’s at stake.

He was the first player in 29 years to win back-to-back U.S. Opens but came up short of a third straight at Pebble Beach last summer.

“That drove me nuts a little bit,” Koepka conceded. “I played good golf, but I just got beat by Gary Woodland. There’s, what, six guys who have ever won three majors in a row? Yeah, not a bad list to be on. The whole year is spent prepping for these.”

Anything can happen over the next 54 holes, but Koepka looks ready, pursuers large and small look ready and Harding Park looks ready.

Strap in, people. Major in progress.

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