News & Opinion

2020 PGA: Making the grade at Harding Park

Cameron Champ 2020 PGA Championship 3rd round
Cameron Champ, a native Californian who won in the fall in Napa, rates an A-minus as he plays his way into contention to win the PGA Championship.

3rd round reveals a U.S. Open-worthy test that helps separate the challengers from the pretenders and tees up a big finish Sunday

You make the call: Is it funny, ironic, sad or inspired that a United States Open broke out Saturday at TPC Harding Park … right in the middle of the PGA Championship?

Gnarly rough, narrow fairways lined by big trees, firm greens and San Francisco’s formidable chilly breezes conspired to give PGA Tour players all the challenge they can handle this week. It’s the kind of tough-but-marginally-fair setup for which U.S. Opens are known.

No players reached double figures under par at this high-end public-course gem, yet few competitors complained (scores).

Give an A-plus to Kerry Haigh, the PGA of America veteran in charge of setting up its championship courses. Harding Park needed the rough and breezy weather as a defense since its greens are less contoured than at most major venues, which explains the unusual number of long putts holed. The result is an entertaining mix of birdies, eagles and scrambling bogeys.

While I’m giving out grades, why wait to pass judgment on everything? Here’s how others rated, although all marks are subject to upgrades pending potential bribes…

Phil Mickelson: A. His play wasn’t all bad – he made the cut. But he rates an A as a CBS guest announcer after his third round. He was an instant hit, bringing energy and a sense of playfulness that CBS golf telecasts could use. Within 15 minutes, viewers forgot Nick Faldo was even there. Lefty played self-deprecating and wise guy with equal deftness. On straying into the fifth hole en route to the fourth green: “I just played it a little bit different than most, that’s all.” On wearing aviator-style shades: “Not everyone can pull that off, but I think I am.” If it’s all an act, it’s a good act although Mickelson is understandably maybe not for everyone. Could Lefty be so glib over a whole season? Absolutely. (His catchphrase? “Salty.”) Sign him up, CBS … if you haven’t already.

Tiger Woods: C-minus. A new putter was a hot story for one round when Woods shot 68, but then reality set in. He didn’t make many putts in the next two rounds, and he often was putting for pars after missing most of the fairways. Is he rusty from too few tournament rounds? Is his back messing with him? Or is he suffering from 44-year-old-itis? Yes, yes and yes.

Brooks Koepka: B. The man going for a PGA three-peat finally made a move on the back nine Saturday – in the wrong direction. Three straight bogeys derailed his solid play. He played better than how he’s scored, he said. In classic Koepka fashion, he birdied two of the last three holes to get within two of the lead. Koepka is usually Mr. Sunday in majors. To win this, he’ll have to be.

Dustin Johnson: A. Mickelson said from the CBS tower that Johnson is “very underrated” as a putter, and that call proved Tony-Romo-prescient. Johnson needed only 24 putts in the third round and leads the field in strokes gained putting. Seriously? His 65 included a double bogey, but when he finished, he had the PGA lead by himself at 9 under par. He looms large.

Scottie Scheffler PGA Championship 3rd round
Scottie Scheffler has been playing like anything but a PGA Tour rookie this week in the PGA Championship as he contends for his 1st victory on one of the game’s biggest stages.

Scottie Scheffler: A. This University of Texas alumnus is one of those “can’t miss” guys. After being last year’s Korn Ferry Tour player of the year, he’s living up to that billing. A hot putter earned him eight birdies, a third-round 65 and a bout in the lead of his first PGA Championship. He’s a fearless stud, and if he putts like this Sunday, he probably “won’t miss.”

Cameron Champ: A-minus. Remember those pre-tournament predictions that Harding Park was a big-hitter’s course? Well, here’s maybe the biggest hitter of all, knocking on the door. Champ doesn’t have the major experience of other contenders, but most of them don’t have his length, either.

Scott Van Pelt: A. The man known as SVP is one of the funniest, quickest and smartest talking heads in sports. He got his big break at Golf Channel, but his wit and keen observations were the highlight of ESPN’s marathon coverage during the first two day. SVP? Make it MVP.

Justin Rose: B-plus. The Olympic champion shot level par in the third round and didn’t make a move. He’s still in a good position at T-7, three strokes back, but he’ll have to hole putts and go for the gold in the final round.

Haotong Li: B-plus. He’s the first male player from China to lead a major after any round, and Saturday, he was the first male player from China to drive a cart in a major. After his tee shot stuck in a cypress tree and was lost at No. 13, Li was given a cart by a rules official to drive back to the tee to reload. He was a delightful, oft-smiling underdog until that double bogey. He’s still a wild card for the final round.

Jordan Spieth: D-minus. Making the cut was the high point, unfortunately. Paired with his pal, Justin Thomas, Spieth racked up eight bogeys in the third round and dropped into a tie for last. What’s wrong? Spieth has hit only 18 of 42 fairways.

Collin Morikawa: A-minus. It makes perfect sense that a young gun who played college golf across the bay at Cal would thrive in San Francisco’s breezy and brisk conditions. Too bad it didn’t make perfect sense before you bet Webb Simpson and Mickelson. “Coming in, I knew the course,” said Morikawa, 23, who played Harding Park numerous times while in college. Seven birdies in Saturday’s tough conditions mean he’s a legit threat. His odds are slightly lower now, however, at 11-1.

Jason Day: B. This Aussie blast from the past looked like his stylish former No. 1-in-the-world self for two rounds but got trampled for a while in Saturday’s stampede toward the top. A late rally kept him in the picture, but Day needs to shoot Way Down Under.

Paul Casey: A. Nobody has played more consistent golf than this wry Englishman. He’s a superior ball-striker, and it has shown this week: He leads in the only stat that matters: fewest bogeys. He’s made only two bogeys (and one double bogey) in 54 holes. Blimey.

Bryson DeChambeau: B-plus. His plan to overpower the course backfired during the first two days as he kept chopping out of the thick rough as good rounds slipped away. His putter turned the tide in the third round, however, featuring an ocean liner, a 95-footer for birdie at 18, to lock in a 66. Was that some kind of omen or what?

Tommy Fleetwood: C-plus. Golf’s Best Hair suffered an unkind cut when he was 2 over par through 10 holes playing in Saturday’s final pairing with leader Li. He birdied two of the last three to shoot 70 and climb back into a tie for seventh. He could use something like the 63 he fired at Shinnecock Hills in the 2018 U.S. Open’s final round, but even then, it might be a close shave.

Blimp camera operator: A-plus. Aerial shots of anything in San Francisco, even fog, is must-see TV. A blimp circling this city with a camera is a 24-hour cable channel I’d watch.

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