Eyes on Woods but look out for quiet assassin Koepka

NEW YORK • Defending champion Brooks Koepka is the one to beat at this week's PGA Championship even if Tiger Woods will have the boisterous New York galleries on his side as one of golf's four Majors begins a new era in the spring.

After being held since 1972 in the dog days of summer, the tournament's move to May should ensure milder weather and more attention from American sports fans, whose thoughts by August have invariably turned to American football.

The withdrawal of world No. 5 Justin Thomas yesterday with a wrist injury means the event will not become the first Major since the world rankings began in 1986 to feature all the top 100.

But most of the field of 156 will be in the supporting cast as one man takes centre stage.

Tiger-mania is back in full force after he ended his 11-year Major drought by winning the Masters last month, and Woods is one of the favourites on a course where he lifted the US Open trophy in 2002.

But big, brawny Bethpage, a 7,459-yard course on Long Island, is arguably less suited for his game than the other Major venues this year.

While not short off the tee, the 43-year-old is no longer among the biggest hitters after his spinal fusion back surgery in 2017.

He may have to let rip with his driver, though, to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy a fifth time, adding to his previous successes in 1999, 2000, 2006 and 2007.

Fifty players are averaging 300 yards or more on the PGA Tour this year. Woods, at 299 yards, is respectable, but gone are the days when he could overpower a course.

He now gets the job done the old fashioned way, by relentlessly hitting greens in regulation.

At 75 per cent, Woods is the year's best on Tour at it, which could prove decisive at Bethpage.

However, the former world No. 1's preparations were hit by a distraction after TMZ reported that he faces a lawsuit from the parents of a worker at his Florida restaurant, who died in a drink-driving accident after allegedly being served alcohol to the point of "severe intoxication". Nicholas Immesberger, a bartender at The Woods in Jupiter, Florida died last December at the age of 24.

While legitimate title chances will line up like jets at nearby John F. Kennedy Airport, anyone with designs on winning will likely have to contend with the quiet assassin Koepka, who for all his dominance in recent Majors remains less than a crowd favourite.

Koepka, a three-time Major winner, does not stand out as superior in any single aspects of the game, but is good across the board, and his mind is perhaps his best weapon, seemingly immune to pressure.

Others with the goods to contend include Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood, Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 15, 2019, with the headline 'Eyes on Woods but look out for quiet assassin Koepka'. Print Edition | Subscribe