By DOUG FERGUSON AP Golf Writer
PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Four layers of clothes, beanies and hand warmers were everywhere on the eve of the PGA Championship, a reminder of how this major will be different from the previous six at Oak Hill.
The temperature was 37 degrees – it felt colder with a morning breeze – and it made the 7,394 yards on the scorecard of a par 70 feel even longer.
“I still can’t believe it’s nearly middle of May and that we’re still going through 40-, 50-degree weather,” Jason Day said. “But that’s this part of the country at this time of the year.”
Ockie Strydom of South Africa was on the 10th tee, taking practice swings and waiting for the clock to hit 7 a.m. for the course to officially open.
“Have you no friends?” someone called out to him.
Strydom laughed and replied, “You’d have to be crazy to play in this.”
Such was the risk of the PGA Championship moving from August to May. The good news for Day, world No. 1 Jon Rahm, defending champion Justin Thomas, world No. 2 Scottie Scheffler and the rest of the 156-man field was Wednesday was a blip on an otherwise pleasant forecast.
As for the difficulty, that’s not likely to change. Oak Hill, restored to the intent of famed architect Donald Ross, is likely to test everything.
Jordan Spieth was asked to describe the rough and he took it a step further.
“It’s about as nasty … there’s nothing that separates this from a U.S. Open,” Spieth said. “This is a U.S. Open. The fairways are firm and narrow, and the rough is thick. As far as difficulty, it feels like a U.S. Open course. Par is a nice score.”
Jason Dufner is the only player to reach double digits under par (10-under 270) in the six majors at Oak Hill – three U.S. Opens, three PGAs. That was 10 years ago in August, when rain soaked the course and left the greens soft and vulnerable.
This effectively is a new course – it certainly looks that way. The bunkers are deeper, with steep, nearly vertical lips. Some greens have deep rough on one side and closely mown areas on the other that send balls rolling some 20 yards away.
Thomas went long of the 230-yard third green. He tried a flop shot back up the slope to the putting surface and it kept rolling until it was back in the fairway.
There is trouble everywhere, capable of punishing mistakes.
“You miss greens out here, you’re going to make a lot of bogeys,” two-time PGA champion Brooks Koepka said. “You miss fairways, you’re going to be making quite a few bogeys if you’re out of position.”
Koepka is coming off a runner-up finish at the Masters, where he had the 54-hole lead until Rahm tracked him down on the final day. He arrived at Augusta National having won a LIV Golf event in Florida.
He is healthy again, and Koepka seemed to take his game up a notch for the majors because of the discipline it requires. That’s the word Rory McIlroy used to describe what it takes at Oak Hill, and Koepka concurred.
“It’s a grind,” Koepka said. “A major week is always tough. It’s always going to be a tough golf course. You’ve got to plot your way around, understand where to miss it, where not to miss it. It just comes down to discipline. I feel like every time I’ve won, I’ve been super disciplined. … I think that’s a massive thing to win a major.”
Dustin Johnson won on the Saudi-funded series last week in Oklahoma, delivering clutch birdies on the 18th in regulation and in a three-man playoff.
He appears to be back in form, and to Johnson, it didn’t matter where he was playing or how many guys he had to beat in the 48-man fields.
“Still playing against unbelievably good golfers,” Johnson said. “To be honest, the scores the last few tournaments we played were a lot lower than I thought they would be. You’ve got to play well every single day if you want a chance to win. The game last week, a lot of really good things. I’m driving it well, controlling the distance with the irons, starting to wedge it a lot better, and then rolled in a few putts.
“It’s nice coming off a win, coming into this championship, and especially this golf course.”
It all gets started Thursday, with temperatures again expected to be bone-chilling in the morning before yielding to warmer weather – certainly not August weather – later in the day and through the rest of the week.
The PGA Championship again features the strongest field of the majors, with only the injured Will Zalatoris missing from the top 100 players in the world.
A strong field, a strong course.
“This is going to be a big golf course to handle,” Tony Finau said. “None of the holes I played I looked at and said, ‘I’m going to birdie this hole this week for sure.’ It’s going to be that type of test. The guys that can mentally overcome the hurdle of just trying to stay patient … you just have to play well for all four days if you’re going to win this week.”
SPIETH SAYS WRIST FEELS GOOD ENOUGH
Jordan Spieth finished nine holes of practice at Oak Hill on Wednesday and said his left wrist felt good enough to play in the PGA Championship, and good enough that he won’t rule out his chances of a career Grand Slam.
That’s a big leap from a week ago, when he wasn’t sure he could make it to New York.
“I wouldn’t play if I didn’t think I was in good enough shape to play,” he said after playing the front nine with Justin Thomas and Tom Kim. “I just don’t have the reps I’d like to have going into a major. But I’m happy I’m able to play because I surely didn’t think that a week ago.”
Spieth missed the cut at the Wells Fargo Championship and then withdrew from his hometown AT&T Byron Nelson in the Dallas area because of a wrist injury that required rest.
He did not say how he injured his wrist, calling it random, but that it was on the ulnar side. His left wrist is taped, with kinesiology tape running from the wrist to the elbow.
The timing is not good for the 29-year-old Spieth, and not just because it’s a major. The PGA Championship is the only major keeping him from becoming the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam.
Tiger Woods was the last player to complete a career slam in 2000.
Spieth said in a text message on Sunday that he was still 50-50 about playing, but that he would fly up to the Rochester area to at least see how it handled the thick rough framing the fairways at Oak Hill.
That didn’t seem to be an issue when he played the back nine on Tuesday, and then he had an afternoon start to see the front nine on the eve of the PGA Championship.
He hit a variety of bunker shots, difficult because of the steep lips. Flop shots were minimal. On his final hole, Spieth drove into the left rough and took a hard slash to advance it up the hill, short of the green but without flinching.
He said the shots that can be uncomfortable are “anything I have to flick over, like a high bunker shot or a high flop shot.”
“You wouldn’t have those as much as any other shot,” he said.
Spieth said he turned the corner on Saturday, when he had his first full-range session and was able to hit the ball at full speed.
“On Sunday morning when I woke up, it didn’t take a step back,” he said. “So I thought, ‘I’ve got a good shot at it.’”
As for treatment, he said he did just about everything from laser to stem cell to ice therapy. “And it’s healed up,” he said.
He starts Thursday on the 10th hole with former British Open champion Shane Lowry and Viktor Hovland. Spieth said he wouldn’t be playing if he didn’t think he could win.
“It’s not fun if you don’t think you have a chance to win,” he said. “If I felt like I was limited in a way that would affect my chances, then there would be no reason for me to feel like playing. Because then I would do further damage and it wouldn’t be worth it.
“I feel like I can get into every position with the speed that I want to produce the scores I want,” he said, pausing to smile before adding, “I’m just a little rusty on the reps.”
And with that, he headed to the range for one last session.
SUPPORT FOR MICKELSON REMAINS STRONG
New York’s love affair with Phil Mickelson still appears to run deep. No matter the part of the state. No matter what tour he calls home.
A year after the six-time major champion left the PGA Tour to become the de facto face of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf league – a move that kickstarted multiple lawsuits and a sometimes bitter war of words among the sport’s biggest stars – Mickelson strolled around Oak Hill ahead of this week’s PGA Championship as if nothing from his surprising triumph at Kiawah in 2021 has changed other than perhaps his seemingly ever-shrinking waistline.
Wearing a hooded burgundy sweatshirt and his trademark aviator sunglasses, Mickelson made a leisurely tour of the front nine with fellow LIV competitors and PGA Tour defectors Dustin Johnson, Harold Varner III and Talor Gooch ahead of Thursday’s opening round.
This is the state that serenaded him with “Happy Birthday” during the final round of the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black as he tried to chase down Tiger Woods for his first major; celebrated when he won his first PGA title at Baltusrol in 2005 – northern New Jersey essentially counts right? – and groaned when he double-bogeyed the 18th at Winged Foot to cost himself the 2006 U.S. Open.
The gallery drifted three to four deep around the tee boxes and greens, with various iterations of “Phil” and “Go Phil!” following Mickelson as he tried to get a gauge on a slightly revamped East Course that he’s come to know pretty well over the last three decades.
There were hits and misses. An approach shot from the middle of the fairway on the par-4 second hole caromed into a greenside bunker. Minutes later he feathered his tee shot on the treacherous 230-yard par-3 third hole to 10 feet, only to stare in surprise when a pair of practice putts slid low and right of the cup.
At every turn, however, there were throngs of support as the two state troopers tasked with following the foursome did their best to duck out of the frame as fans pulled out their phones to capture Mickelson’s every move.
It was a scene reminiscent of his stunning performance in South Carolina two years ago, when he fended off Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen to become the first 50-something to capture one of golf’s four majors.
Mickelson bailed on a chance to defend his PGA title last year at Southern Hills, part of the initial fallout of comments in which he said he was fine aligning with LIV Golf in an effort to put pressure on the PGA Tour.
Three weeks later, he teed it up with LIV outside London.
Now he’s seemingly entrenched on the upstart tour while calling out entities like the PGA Tour, the PGA of America and the USGA for practices he believes could exclude LIV players from opportunities to compete in majors like the PGA and the U.S. Open.
Remove the rhetoric, however, and Mickelson can still bring it. He put together a stunning final round 7-under-par 65 at Augusta National to charge up the leaderboard and tie for second behind Jon Rahm at the Masters.
The noise around the LIV/PGA Tour rift seems to have calmed a bit in western New York. Rahm, the world’s top-ranked player, said he hoped to play a practice round with Mickelson at some point. It didn’t work out this week.
Maybe the nearly three-hour trip around the front nine with Johnson, Varner and Gooch was Mickelson’s way of trying to give some of his LIV colleagues some pointers on a course he knows well.
Mickelson went 3-0 in his Ryder Cup debut in 1995, shot a 4-under 66 to share the first-round lead at the 2003 PGA before fading to a tie for 23rd. He never really threatened in 2013, undone by a 78 on Saturday that had him finishing up his final round long before eventual champion Jason Dufner teed off.
Dufner isn’t playing at Oak Hill this weekend. Mickelson, however, remains a fixture. Popular too. By the end of his round, he’d shed his hoodie for one of his signature black polos and spent several minutes signing autographs or posing for selfies.
The calls of “Phil!” persisted as he slowly made his way toward the parking lot, urging those he missed to try to grab him later in the week.
Minutes later, Mickelson did a little bit of stretching then hopped into the massive SUV idling in his reserved parking space before zooming away, eyes fixated on the road ahead, not the road behind.
JASON DAY ON AN UPSWING
Coming off his first victory in five years, a win Jason Day thought might never come, the 35-year-old Australian is doing his best to keep expectations in check entering the PGA Championship.
Then again, once fearing his career might be over, the former No. 1 player in the world can draw upon the low moments from his recent past to keep him grounded at Oak Hill this week.
“I think it’s funny. After I won the tournament, it didn’t feel like much at all, and I say that in the most respectful way,” Day said Wednesday, referring to rallying from a final round two-shot deficit to win the Byron Nelson last weekend.
“I think it’s more about the actual journey,” he added. “Winning last week was a good step in the right direction in regards to knowing that the consistent work that I put in was yielding good play. All it had to do was kind of show itself.”
It is, perhaps, a new Day.
In winning his 13th PGA Tour event, and first since the Wells Fargo in May 2018, Day has finally shaken the back problems which led to a gradual decline in his game since 2015-2016, when he combined for eight titles. The two-year stretch included Day winning his first and only major, the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, where he became the first player to finish a major at 20-under par or better.
After winning two more times in 2018, Day endured a four-year stretch in which he registered just 16 top-10 finishes and missed the cut 29 times in 79 events.
The bottom fell out a little over a year ago, when Day plunged to 175th in the rankings. Life was just as difficult off the course, where Day mourned his mother, who died last year following a lengthy battle with lung cancer.
“I was not only struggling mentally, but struggling physically, and there was a lot of doubt in my mind to think that I would ever come back and be able to win again,” acknowledged Day, who enters the weekend ranked 20th. “At one point I was sitting there going, OK, well, I didn’t know if this was kind of the end for me.”
To win on Mother’s Day was poignant enough. What the victory also did was validate the hints of progress Day began to see in his game since the 2022-23 season began in September.
In 16 tournaments, he’s enjoyed seven top-10 finishes – the most since he had 10 in 2016 – and missed the cut just three times, as opposed to doing so 16 times over his previous 41 tournaments.
“It’s like anything, once the momentum train starts, it takes a while to get things going. But once it starts, it starts to go pretty fast,” he said. “And if you can stay on that train for a little bit, that momentum can take you on to better things.”
Gratifying as it was to win, what also struck Day last weekend was the outpouring of support he received from fellow golfers.
Among them was Tiger Woods, who has formed a friendship with Day, with the two encouraging each other while dealing with their respective health issues. Woods’ career has been sidetracked by a rash of injuries, the latest involving him having ankle surgery last month.
“I can’t say what he said because a lot of it was like F-words,” Day said with a laugh in referring to Woods’ celebratory text messages.
Dustin Johnson, now playing on the rival LIV Golf circuit, knows firsthand how good Day can play, having competed with him as an amateur in the 2000s, and again on the PGA Tour.
“He was one of the best players in the world. It’s good to see him back in good form and playing some good golf,” Johnson said Wednesday.
The key now for Day is to remain patient, which explains his approach this week.
Though unfamiliar with Oak Hill, Day elected against taking any practice rounds to conserve his energy. Mentally, he’s focusing solely on the first round and not the rising expectations he could entertain coming off a victory.
“It’s in my nature to expect bigger and better things, so I’m just trying to cool the jets on that,” he said, acknowledging how much of a mental trap high expectations were to him in the recent past.
“That was probably the hardest couple of years that I’ve had in regards to my competitive life,” Day said. “I think this time I’m trying to do it in a different way. I’m trying to be a lot more grateful for the opportunity that I have just because of what I’ve gone through.”
AP sports writers Will Graves and John Wawrow contributed to this report.
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