(KPIX) — The PGA Championship is underway, bringing together the PGA Tour’s best once again. This time, TPC Harding Park in San Francisco hosts the year’s first major. The field includes every player in the top 10, from newly crowned number one, Justin Thomas, to number 10, Patrick Cantlay. The names extend much further than that, with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and most of the game’s top 100 players taking the course.
The favorites, unsurprisingly, can be found in the rankings’ upper reaches as well. Justin Thomas has played as well as anyone since the PGA Tour’s return in June. Brooks Koepka (ranked sixth), the two-time defending PGA Championship winner, has recently found his game. Bryson DeChambeau (seventh), beefed up and ready to go, has the length and aggressiveness to snag the Wanamaker Trophy.
But one top-10 player remains largely outside of the favorites conversation. Webb Simpson is the fourth-ranked player in the world, yet somehow not considered a likely contender. He’s improved his standing by seven spots since the start of 2020 on the strength of wins at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February and the RBC Heritage in June. Simpson has two other top-10 finishes this year and is coming off a tie for 12th at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational last week.
“I’m going to go with Webb Simpson (to win the PGA Championship),” says KPIX sports director Dennis O’Donnell. “Webb Simpson is not a long hitter, but he’s a great iron hitter. He’s a very accurate player. Webb Simpson won the U.S. Open at Olympic, which is right across the street, here in 2012, under similar conditions. The Open was held in June. This is August. In San Francisco, we have sort of Indian Summers that really come in September. Right now, Harding Park should be shrouded in fog, and the conditions will make the greens approachable. You can be aggressive. But Webb Simpson, a shorter player, a more accurate player, is my pick this week.”
Simpson shot 1-over par for the tournament to win the U.S. Open at Olympic. And he came from behind on Sunday in the fog to do it. His four birdies on holes six and 10 and string of pars down the stretch were enough for a one-stroke win. Then, as now, he wasn’t really part of the favorites conversation, at least until the last day.
Koepka, on the other hand, is very much on everybody’s radar. The big-hitter has struggled for much of 2020, both before and after the break, with three missed cuts and four other finishes well down on the leaderboard. Clearly the ongoing knee injury was still an issue. But a tie for second at the FedEx St. Jude changed the conversation. And the possibility of a third straight PGA Championship should further inspire Koepka, who lives for majors.
“He had that stem cell procedure on that left knee awhile back, and then he stumbled on that left knee,” O’Donnell recalls. “Hasn’t been the same since. But on the back-nine yesterday (Sunday), Koepka had a long birdie on 16. He was in the lead. Then he hit water on 18. But I saw enough from Brooks yesterday to put him in my top five at Harding Park. He’s there, he just didn’t finish. If you’re Koepka, you have to be pleased with what happened yesterday, to almost overcome Justin Thomas. But Koepka can win his third straight PGA Championship.”
Woods is part of the conversation whenever he plays. His incredible record over the years has earned him that much. But a spot atop the leaderboard is probably too much to ask. “Tiger Woods has won here before,” O’Donnell points out. “Remember Tiger Woods won the tournament where John Daly missed a gimme putt to give the tournament to Tiger Woods. Quite frankly, Tiger hasn’t played enough to have any chance of contending in this tournament.”
Mickelson has also earned the benefit of the doubt. “Phil Mickelson tied for second yesterday (Sunday, at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational) at 10-under par,” says O’Donnell. “He was a great showing yesterday. I know he’s on the other side of 50, but don’t count him out, Lefty, who knows this course as well as anybody.”
Watch the PGA Championship, Saturday, August 8, 1:00 – 7:00 p.m. PT and Sunday, August 9, 12:00 – 6:00 p.m. PT on CBS.