TULSA, Okla. – Inside the clubhouse at Southern Hills is a sign that proudly signals its heritage with the phrase, “First to Five.” No other course has hosted the PGA Championship as many times.
This PGA Championship already feels so different from the previous four.
Think back to a year ago. What would the odds have been that Tiger Woods, three months after a car crash mangled his right right leg and ankle, would be at Southern Hills; and Phil Mickelson, fresh off becoming golf's oldest major champion, would decline to defend his title?
And on the first official day of practice, when Woods played the back nine and Bryson DeChambeau contemplated an early return from wrist surgery, the Saudi-funded golf league sent out applications for its first LIV Golf Invitational series that threatens to disrupt the sport.
Strange times, indeed.
“It's a bizarre situation, that's for sure,” Viktor Hovland said. “It's not often the defending major champion doesn't come back to defend. ... I think we all would have liked to have Phil here and tee it up and see how he would have done. The way he won it last year was pretty spectacular. It's just a weird situation.”
Mickelson chose to extend his three-month hiatus from golf following his comments that he recruited top players to pay lawyers to write the operating agreement of the rival league. He said he didn't care if it succeeded as long as it gave him leverage to make changes on the PGA Tour, and accused the PGA Tour of “obnoxious greed” while he played the Saudi International.
Woods arrived on Sunday to play the front nine at Southern Hills — he won the PGA Championship the last time it was here in 2007 — and reported he is much stronger than during his remarkable return at the Masters.
“Just watching him at the Masters, that was unreal, just the crowds and what it does to a tournament when he tees up,” Hovland said.
Hovland knows the restored Southern Hills as well as anyone, not so much from his time at Oklahoma State but the fact the Norwegian star chose to make Stillwater home. He figured he has played it a half-dozen times since Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner restored the Perry Maxwell design that puts a premium on angles and accuracy into greens, because the edges now send golf balls some 20 yards away into collection areas.
The early scouting report is that a good short game will go a long way.
Talor Gooch, Oklahoma born and bred, figures he has played Southern Hills a dozen times, but only once since the restoration. And that wasn't a happy memory.
“It was blowing 30. It was about 50 degrees. And so needless to say, I didn't get a great first impression because it was just eating my lunch,” Gooch said.
Monday was different. Temperatures climbed into the 80s with endless sunshine and only a mild breeze, and the course was busy.
“For the last couple months, my buddies out here (on tour) that I play a lot of practice rounds with, I've tried not to overhype the place because it's one of my favorite places in the world,” Gooch said. “And so I think it’s phenomenal and I think it’s going to be tough to find anyone that’s going to speak any differently about it.”
The only murmuring is how long the rounds might take. The rough is minimal. There's are a few meandering streams that come into play. One issue is the middle of the front nine.
The tee shot on the par-3 sixth hole goes over the new tee on the par-4 third hole. And the seventh tee is directly behind the sixth green.
Even for a practice round, the sequence was strange. Gooch hit his drive on No. 3. And then Rory McIlroy, playing as a solo, launched his tee shot on No. 6. Next to play on No. 3 were Max Homa and club pro Casey Pyne. And then the foursome allowed McIlroy to walk by toward the sixth green before Adam Hadwin hit the final drive on No. 3.
“That corner could be really slow,” Hovland said.
Those are the least of golf's problems at the moment. There's a major to be won this week, one with a century of history on a golf course that is among the few to have hosted the PGA Championship and U.S. Open multiple times.
And there remains the prospect of a looming battle between the new Saudi league and the PGA Tour, which has denied releases for its members to play outside London in three weeks.
Rickie Fowler, winless since 2019 and on the verge of falling out of the top 150 in the world for the first time since his rookie year in 2010, said he has been approached by the new venture and “I haven't necessarily made a decision one way or the other.”
“I’ve mentioned in the past, do I currently think that the PGA Tour is the best place to play? I do. Do I think it can be better? Yes,” he said. “So I think it's an interesting position.”
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