The bad news: The final-round “Battle of the Titans” golf fans have been clamoring for — Brooks “Big Game” Koepka vs. Bryson “The Brain” DeChambeau with a tournament on the line — won’t be coming to a PGA Championship near you. At least not on this Sunday.
The good: If Saturday’s Round 3 at TPC Harding Park is any indication of what’s to come, the first major of this COVID-19 season won’t lack for fireworks.
Koepka, the two-time defending champion, faced a gut check after making three straight bogeys and promptly responded by birdieing two of his last three holes to shoot 69 and stay two shots of the lead. Even gutsier, perhaps, was Koepka’s post-round interview performance, which resembled a major leaguer walking over to the opposing dugout and daring anyone inside to come out and fight.
Koepka nearly yawned when asked to assess the players ahead of him, a group that includes leader and 2016 U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson (at 9-under 201), rising stars Scottie Scheffler, Cameron Champ (both at 8 under), Collin Morikawa and veteran Paul Casey (both at 7 under).
“A lot of guys on the leaderboard, I don’t think have won. I guess DJ has only won one,” he began. “I don’t know a lot of the others that are up there.”
Right behind Koepka, but left out of that withering assessment, was DeChambeau, who climbed to 6-under by dropping a 95-foot bomb of a birdie putt the 18th.
Both are among the game’s premier power players, but Koepka, already a four-time major winner, has been the one throwing most of the shade. He plays fast and has little patience for those who don’t. DeChambeau, who treats short putts like a surveyor and on-course rulings like federal cases, often plays painstakingly slow. Both look like college football-sized safeties. But it took Koepka several years to muscle up his 6-foot frame, while DeChambeau (6-1) added almost 40 pounds of bulk in a matter of months.
Whether they’ll discuss any of that remains to be seen. But they’ll be within shouting distance of each other all day. DeChambeau, playing alongside Tony Finau, goes off at 4:20 pm ET. Koepka, alongside Casey, tees off 10 minutes later. If play backs up on the course, CBS will want to make sure the boom microphones nearby are turned up to full volume.
But even if their feud fizzles, there should be plenty to talk about. Johnson packs plenty of power, too, and knows that with a second major comes a whole lot of bragging rights.
It’s simple,” Johnson said. “I’ve got to hit a lot of fairways and a lot of greens. If I can do that tomorrow, I’m going to have a good chance coming down the stretch. … I’m just going to have to do what I did today. Just get it done.”
The list of players who didn’t — on golf’s traditional “moving day” no less — was long. Li Haotong’s distinction — the first Chinese player to lead any round in a major — disappeared after he shot 73, fittingly highlighted by a double-bogey after a tee shot got stuck in a tree. Tiger Woods’ reputation as a contender everywhere he plays, took a hit at Harding Park, too. He didn’t make a birdie until the 16th, and after a promising opening round, has looked every bit the 44-year-old who caught lightning in a bottle at the 2019 Masters and might not be that lucky again.
Saturday’s round finished in the gloaming, with the mercury at 59 degrees and bedevilling 15 mph winds. More of the same is expected for Sunday, which could bode well for youngsters Scheffler, Champ and Morikawa, who played college golf at Cal-Berkley nearby and knows Harding Park well.
“Obviously it’s played very different. The tees are way back, the greens are a lot faster,” he said, then paused. “But what’s crazy is there aren’t enough fans.”
So even if you’re just keeping score at home, make some noise. It would be appreciated.