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Punch Shot: Koepka, Woods among PGA predictions

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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – After all the talk, the PGA Championship’s move to May is here and major championship golf has returned to Bethpage Black for the first time in a decade. So, who will win, who will disappoint and what will the headline be late on Sunday? Our team of writers in New York share thoughts.


WHO WILL BE THE BIGGEST SURPRISE?

REX HOGGARD: Tommy Fleetwood. Although he’s 16th in the world the Englishman doesn’t exactly fit the power mold we typically expect from contenders at Bethpage. But Fleetwood ranks fourth on the PGA Tour in strokes gained: off-the-tee, which includes both length and accuracy, and last year’s runner-up showing at the U.S. Open was a valuable learning experience.

RYAN LAVNER: Francesco Molinari. For once, he won’t contend in a major. The Italian stallion has three consecutive top-6s in majors (and six straight top-25s overall), but there are a couple of factors working against him this week. For the first two rounds he’s grouped with Tiger Woods, who chipped away at Frankie’s legendary status with his comeback victory at the Masters. And Bethpage Black isn’t conducive to Molinari’s skill set – he’s short by today’s standards (132nd on Tour) and could have trouble holding some of the elevated greens when he’s coming in with more club.  

WILL GRAY: Jason Kokrak. You have to go all the way back to The Open in July to find the last time Kokrak missed a cut, a run of 21 straight starts. That includes a runner-up in Tampa in March and three other top-10 finishes. He’s a bomber off the tee, averaging more than 304 yards per poke, and he tied for seventh the last time the PGA Tour came here back in 2016.

JAY COFFIN: Xander Schauffele. A top-10 player playing well in a major shouldn’t be a surprise and, in this case, perhaps it wouldn’t be. The point is that his name hasn’t been mentioned here all week. Not once. It’s DJ, Tiger, Brooks, Rory. They’ve rightly dominated the conversation. But Schauffele hits it plenty far, and he has four top-six finishes in majors the last two seasons, including a second-place tie last month at the Masters. He’s quickly figured out how to play well at the biggest events.


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WHO WILL BE THE BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT?

HOGGARD: Tiger Woods. Despite the wildly elevated expectations following his victory at the Masters, Woods’ game will likely not be a perfect fit for Bethpage. He has won on the Black Course before but the demands on his driving will prove to be too much.

LAVNER: Jordan Spieth. On the cusp of capturing the career Grand Slam, Spieth is talking a good game – that he’s not frustrated, that he’s no longer in a slump, that he’s playing better than the stats suggest. And maybe that’s true. But we have absolutely no evidence to suggest that a breakthrough is imminent. No skill is as paramount this week as long and straight drives, and Spieth is literally one of the worst drivers of the ball on the PGA Tour this season (202nd in strokes gained: off-the-tee). He’ll figure it out eventually, but this ain’t the week. 

GRAY: Tiger Woods. I’m not expecting any Augusta-like performances from him. Yes, he won here back in 2002 when he was dominating the game, and he gained untold confidence from last month’s Masters. But Bethpage will be unforgiving when it comes to some of the stray tee shots that Woods got away with at Augusta National, and after playing only nine practice holes this week I’m wondering how much gas is in the proverbial tank for what is sure to be another long and grueling week.

COFFIN: Tiger Woods. Hope I’m wrong, crazy wrong, but I don’t think I am. The Masters victory was obviously historic, but it’s a tall task to expect Woods to be in similar form 32 days later, which is how long it’ll be between shots hit in competition. Wayward driving could be a problem too. At Augusta National it’s not an issue, but here at Bethpage Black, foul balls will lead to bogey at best. So, a month later, he’ll need to hit it better than he did off the tee at the Masters? That’s not going to happen.


WHO FROM OUTSIDE THE TOP 20 CAN WIN?

HOGGARD: Adam Scott (27). At 38, the Australian has proven that he’s not finished contending in major championships. He finished third at last year’s PGA Championship and checks all the right boxes with his length and accuracy off the tee and a putter that, although still streaky, is no longer a complete liability.

LAVNER: Sergio Garcia (26). Save for his clunker at the Masters, it’s been a steady if unspectacular spring for Garcia. He has six top-10s this calendar year, and that includes a tie for fourth in his most recent start at Quail Hollow, which always has a major feel to it. He also top-10’d in both of his U.S. Open starts here. Expecting him to contend again here, too.

GRAY: Sergio Garcia (26). It would be nothing short of poetic for Garcia to add a second major on a course where he came so close 17 years ago. The New York crowds weren’t exactly kind to the re-gripping Spaniard back then, but time has softened the stance on both sides. What remains sturdy is Garcia’s game, with his Masters missed cut a lone blip in an otherwise solid stretch that includes a T-4 finish at Quail Hollow. His other performances here (T-10 in 2009, T-3 in 2012) speak to his affinity for the Black Course.

COFFIN: Gary Woodland (25). This totally can happen. Length, length, length and length are the main reasons. He hits it miles, ranked top-10 in both driving distance and strokes gained: off-the-tee and last year at the PGA Championship, his sixth-place tie was his best career major finish. Someone who hits the cover off the ball is going to win this week. Woodland fits that bill.


THE SUNDAY EVENING HEADLINE WILL BE…?

HOGGARD: Black and Blue at Bethpage. There was plenty of uncertainty in the buildup to this year’s PGA Championship, the first held in May since 1949, but Bethpage Black will prove it’s the same beast regardless of the season. The winning score for the last two majors played on the course was 4 under and 3 under. Expect something in the same neighborhood on Sunday.

LAVNER: Take That, Brandel!: Brooks Bashes His Way to Another Major. In form, motivated and facing a brawny course that will eliminate many of the other would-be contenders, Koepka is the best bet this week. A stud baseball player when he was younger, Koepka is about to be batting .500 over his last eight majors.

GRAY: King Koepka. At this point I have no reason to doubt Koepka, the defending champ who has become a big game hunter when it comes to majors. His consistency in these events (12 top-25s in his last 13 major starts) speaks to the consistency of his game on the most difficult venues, and the challenges presented by a long and soggy venue play right into his strengths. Fresh off a T-2 finish at the Masters and a fourth-place showing in Dallas where he wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders, he’ll add to his quickly-expanding list of achievements.

COFFIN: Bryson Bullies Bethpage, Claims First Major. No one is saying a peep about Bryson DeChambeau this week, and maybe there’s a reason for that. He hasn’t played well in majors yet and he hasn’t played since the week after the Masters, where he missed the cut at the Heritage. But anyone who has a voice this week has said the winner will be someone who drives it long and straight. DeChambeau is sixth in strokes gained: off-the-tee and he’s third in total driving, which, although is a stat used from yesteryear, still combines the averages of those who drive it both long and straight.