PGA Championship 2020: Talk is cheap and the banter lively as players prepare for major

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SAN FRANCISCO — There are no fans here this week at TPC Harding Park for the PGA Championship. You probably know this. Something about a global pandemic.

It will be the first major played without fans since … maybe ever? Which, of course, is a shame. At last year’s PGA Championship, at Bethpage Black, a quintessentially New York crowd made the whole week sound like something between a golf tournament and a frat party. It was wonderful. The year prior, when Tiger nearly chased down Brooks Koepka at Bellerive, produced some of the loudest roars you’ll hear at any sporting event.

When the PGA of America chose TPC Harding Park to host this, fans were certainly a huge part of the equation. This is a wonderful golf course, but it probably would not have been blessed with a major if it were located 45 minutes to the east. It’s a municipal golf course within the city limits of San Francisco. This thing would have sold out easily. Then COVID happened, and here we are, having to use our inside voices while watching Tiger Woods.

There are, however, some positives to the quiet. Among them: You can hear. You can hear everything.

You could hear Bryson DeChambeau talking to his coach, Chris Como, and caddie, Tim Tucker, about how he’s going to turn lies in the greenside rough this week into a science. They settled on a three-by-three system. There’s a shallow-depth lie, a normal-depth lie, and a deep-depth lie. Next comes an analysis of the grass behind the ball. Little, medium, or a lot. He spent 15 minutes hitting the exact same chip shot from each of these nine lies. Say what you want about the man, but he does not scant his preparation.

During his practice session, Webb Simpson walked by. “Hey, B!” Bryson responded, “Hey, I thought we were playing?” Simpson apologized and told him they’ll get a practice round in soon enough. He suggested Atlanta, for the Tour Championship. Must be nice, having no doubts about making the Tour Championship.

Pat Perez, who is an alternate this week, also came by for a quick hello. DeChambeau noticed the tall can of the C4 energy drink in his hand. “This is my wake-up juice,” Perez said.

Meanwhile, on the driving range, Jim [Bones] Mackay procured a brand-new beanie—Titleist branded, of course—for his new temporary boss, Justin Thomas. Upon seeing his new headgear, Thomas smiled ear-to-ear: “It’s Christmas!”

Way to the right of Thomas was Rich Beem, who won this tournament in 2002. Most of his work these days is broadcasting for Sky Sports, though perhaps that will change when he becomes Champions Tour-eligible in August. Beem spotted a Callaway equipment rep and called out “Hey, do you know how TrackMan works?” Yes, of course he does. “Good … I need plenty of help.” He then pulled out a mobile device and started pointing at numbers. He grew up in a different era.

On the path between the driving range and the first tee, just left of the media center, was Alex Beach. One of the 20 club pros teeing it up this week, he was showing a friend a TV clip in which he’s hitting balls next to Tiger Woods. The camera angle made it seem like Woods was staring directly at Beach as he hit drivers. Beach’s read on the situation: “He doesn’t know how to hit the high, wipey fade quite like I do.”

Speaking of Woods. He’s putting a new putter in play this week. Out is the Scotty Cameron he used to win 14 of his 15 majors; in is a slightly heavier Scotty Cameron that looks almost exactly the same. Woods’ business manager/best friend/second-set-of-eyes Rob McNamara pointed out that Woods’ putter actually isn’t the winningest club in golf history. Apparently, Jack Nicklaus won all 18 of his majors with the same 3-wood, a MacGregor model from 1958.

Over on the actual golf course, on Tuesday, Jamie Lane could not wipe the excitement off his face. He caddies for Bernd Wiesberger, and his beloved Fulham FC—an English soccer team—had just won a playoff to get back into the Premier League. Matthew Fitzpatrick, a diehard Sheffield United fan, knew exactly why he was so giddy. “Can’t wait to take six points off you guys next year!” Or, in American sports terms: We’re going to beat you both home and away next year, and I look forward to moving up in the standings because of those wins.

It wasn’t the only soccer talk. Rory McIlroy is a Manchester United fan, and Man U is in talks to sign Jadon Sancho, one of the best young players in Europe. But McIlroy thinks the asking price for Sancho, 120 million pounds, is a bit too steep. If Borussia Dortmund, Sancho’s current club, doesn’t drop their price, he’d prefer Man U focus their efforts on another player: Jack Grealish, a midfielder from Aston Villa. A man of many thoughts, that McIlroy fellow.

Speaking of non-Americans. South Africans Dylan Frittelli and Erik van Rooyen played a few practice holes together. Both men were dropping multiple balls on and around the 18th green, as is customary in practice rounds. All of a sudden, van Rooyen’s caddie, Alex Gaugert, decided to spice things up a bit. Frittelli dropped a ball 15 feet from the cup. Gaugert yelled, “Big, biiiiiiggggg putt coming here!” Frittelli drained it. As the two players walked off the green, van Rooyen—dressed in a cashmere hoodie and joggers, ready to hop off the course and into a meeting at Facebook HQ just down the road—said he couldn’t believe how cold it was. “This is like winter in South Africa!”

Earlier in the day, two other South Africans, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel conversed as they made their way to the driving range. But they were speaking Afrikaans, and I could not understand a word.

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