ST. LOUIS – For all the talk about the PGA Championship being the red-headed stepchild of the major season, Sunday at Bellerive Country Club could be the year’s most exciting of all the majors.
More than the Masters. More than the U.S. Open. Even more than the British Open.
Don’t @ me.
Sure, there is a lot to knock about Bellerive as a host venue. It’s long, soft and bland, and the 100th PGA probably deserved something better. But what it does offer is a Budweiser wagon full of birdies and eagles.
And there is quite the band of Clydesdales ready to race to the finish.
Brooks Koepka out in front at 12 under. At one point, the two-time U.S. Open champion looked to be running away with this championship. He birdied Nos. 1 and 2 to start Round 3, and then climbed to 13 under, five shots clear of the field, until bogeys at Nos. 14 and 15 brought him back.
Koepka leads by two shots over Adam Scott, and at 28 years old he could very well win his third major in even tries. (That’s the same number as Jordan Spieth, one fewer than Rory McIlroy and two shy of Phil Mickelson.)
But in his wake are some other heavyweights.
Four other players in the world’s top 10 are within four shots. No. 7 Jon Rahm and No. 9 Rickie Fowler, each at 9 under, are hungry for their first major. Fowler, of course, has endured a much longer wait at age 29 than the 23-year-old Rahm. He opened the week in 65 and has shot in the 60s all week. Rahm has gotten a shot better each day, firing bogey-free rounds of 67 and 67 on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
No. 2 Justin Thomas and No. 10 Jason Day, each past PGA winners, are at 8 under. Thomas is the defending champion and has won twice this season. Day is also a two-time winner this year.
Adam Scott, at 10 under, is looking closer to the former World No. 1 version of himself than the one that has just one top-10 finish this season. Joining Koepka in Sunday’s final pairing, the Aussie is 10 years older than Koepka and is still similarly the physical specimen. What Koepka possesses in sheer strength, Scott showcases in a fashion more lean. His silky-smooth swing is back firing on all cylinders, and if the broomstick putter cooperates (Scott is 24th in strokes gained putting this week), he could add a second major to his 2013 Masters victory.
Gary Woodland, the Koepka of the PGA Tour before Koepka – physically, at least – is 9 under, and like Fowler and Rahm, is looking for his first major triumph.
Oh, and then there’s that Tiger Woods fellow, looking to do what he just barely couldn’t do last time out at a major champion. Woods is 8 under after a second straight 66 on Saturday.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of star power, and it should be, it’s a major championship,” Koepka said. “You should see the best players in the world come to the top, and that’s what you have.”
The potential theater for Sunday is more mouthwatering than some St. Louis-style barbecue from Salt + Smoke. The previous three majors were more like a microwavable Stouffer’s meal.
At the U.S. Open, four of the world’s top 10 failed to make the weekend – Spieth (4), Rahm (5), McIlroy (6) and Day (8). Woods also didn’t stick around for four rounds at Shinnecock Hills. The third round was marred by a botched course setup and Mickelson’s antics on the 13th green. And while Tommy Fleetwood made a spirited charge with a final-round 63, the likes of Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose didn’t do much to challenge Koepka, who won his second straight U.S. Open title at 1 over.
The Masters was a little more exciting as Patrick Reed held off final-round charges from Fowler, Spieth and Rahm. But McIlroy faltered on Sunday playing in the final group, and Woods and Mickelson were never a factor. Defending champion Sergio Garcia made a 13 on No. 15 in Round 1 and missed the cut, beating just two players. And Koepka didn’t even tee it up because of a wrist injury.
The best major weekend arguably came at Carnoustie, yet three of the top 5 in the world missed the cut – Johnson (1), Justin Thomas (2) and Rahm (5). Yes, Woods held the outright lead on the back nine Sunday, and Rose and McIlroy came away with runner-up finishes. But defending champion Spieth shot 5 over on the final day, and the final two pairings combined to shoot 13 over.
Nothing against Francesco Molinari, but had it not been for his playing competitor, Woods, being in the hunt on Sunday, the British Open might have had the worst of the three 2018 major finishes.
The St. Louis fans, who have proven so far this week that they root for birdies of more than just the Cardinal type, should get a much better finale Sunday.
“It’s a packed leaderboard and there are going to be about 10 of us looking for that round of the year,” Scott said. “Someone will go out and do it and I’m glad I’m in that position that it could be me.”
Added Fowler: “Obviously, Brooks out front, but a lot of guys from 10 to 7 under. It’s not going to be given to anyone.”
The challenge will be tough. But will Koepka be tougher?
“With so many big names, you would expect two or three of them to really make a run, make a push to get off to a good start and challenge me, I guess,” Koepka said. “Everybody out here is so good, and you look at this leaderboard and there are names that I’ve grown up watching that everybody else loves to watch play, and it should be an exciting day tomorrow.”
Get ready, St. Louis. Koepka and the boys could show the Show Me State some major heat Sunday at the PGA.