Thirteen months without major championship golf dragged by as the world stopped due to the coronavirus pandemic. It seems like eons ago that Shane Lowry lapped the field at Royal Portrush in the 2019 British Open.
Major championship golf returned this week, with no fans in attendance at TPC Harding Park for the 2020 PGA Championship. No matter, the year's first major has delivered and then some through three days to set up what should be a final round most won't soon forget.
2016 U.S. Open winner Dustin Johnson will go to sleep with the 54-hold lead Saturday night after firing a blistering back-nine 31 on Saturday to take the lead at 9-under-par. Johnson has a history at the PGA Championship. In the 2010 edition at Whistling Straits, Johnson birdied 16 and 17 to take a one-shot lead to the final hole. After a closing bogey, it appeared he would be going to a playoff with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson. But it was determined that Johnson grounded his club in a bunker just off the edge of the 18th fairway. The area Johnson hit his approach shot from barely looked like a bunker, but players had been reminded all week that any sand area would play as a bunker. He was penalized two shots and missed the playoff.
Last year, Johnson was paired with Brooks Koepka in the final round but started the day seven shots back. Johnson pulled within one shot after Koepka made five straight back-nine bogeys, but dropped shots at 16 and 17 ended Johnson's quest for the Wanamaker Trophy.
Koepka, who is looking to make history as the first player to win three straight PGA Championships since Walter Hagen won four in a row from 1924-27, will begin Sunday two shots back of Johnson after carding a 1-under-par 69 on Saturday. Koepka's confidence is his greatest asset. He's been a fixture around the top of major leaderboards for the past four years and has closed at some of the game's most iconic venues while Johnson has a history of near-misses at majors.
The brash four-time major champion walked right off the course Saturday and into Johnson's subconscious throwing a couple barbs at the leader.
“I mean, I like my chances,” Koepka said after his round. “When I’ve been in this position before, I've capitalized. I don't know, [Johnson's] only won one. I'm playing good. I don't know, we’ll see.”
Koepka won his first major championship a year after Johnson finally broke through, and has added three more since then, becoming golf's greatest big game hunter. When asked if winning the second major, which Koepka did with a win at the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, was harder than winning the first, Koepka again went for Johnson's psyche.
"Well, if you look at the top of the leaderboard, I'd say yes," Koepka said alluding to Johnson's memorable major misses at Whistling Straits, Pebble Beach and Chambers Bay.
The duel by Lake Merced on Sunday won't just be between Johnson and Koepka, although they'd have to be considered the two favorites.
Cameron Champ and Scottie Scheffler each sit one shot back of Johnson at 8-under-par. Paul Casey and 23-year-old Collin Morikawa each sit alongside Koepka at 7-under, with Jason Day, Justin Rose, Bryson DeChambeau, Tony Finau, Tommy Fleetwood and Daniel Berger all three shots back.
TPC Harding Park has frustrated some of the world's best players this week, with the Bay Area wind and California cypress trees creating the backdrop for a true major test. Those at the top of the leaderboard have battled and survived through three days, giving themselves a chance to carve their name on the Wanamaker Trophy.
It will take a pristine effort to keep the nerves calm through the ups and downs of a major championship Sunday and survive a battle royale involving many of the top players in the world.
“You know someone is going to play well out of the chasing pack,” Rose said after shooting an even-par 70 on Saturday. “So, you always look at the leaders, and if they go ahead and they play great, then they are going to be hard to catch, but anyone from the 6- and 7-under-par group, one or two of those guys are going to play well tomorrow, so that means they are going to get to 10, 11, 12, so that means that you have to go out and put a round of golf together. That's all I know.”
The leaderboard is packed, and Koepka undoubtedly will make an early charge, just as he did last summer when he was trying catch Gary Woodland and make history at the 2019 U.S. Open, birdieing four of his first five holes. It was nearly enough, but Woodland outdueled him at Pebble Beach, showing that golf's major killer could indeed be slain.
None of that will matter if Johnson, who will be Lake Merced's most-hunted prey Sunday, doesn't give him an opening.
"All I can do is go out and play my game and shoot the best number I can," Johnson said. "I'm going to just try and go out and shoot as low as I can tomorrow just like I did today. You know, just take what the golf course gives me and just keep on going because, you know, it doesn't really matter what other guys are doing. All I can control is myself."
Major championship golf was gone for 13 months as the coronavirus pandemic paused the sports world.
It has returned in all it's splendor, with Johnson standing in the way of Koepka's place in golf immortality.