The third round of the PGA is upon us, which means that Friday is in the books, and lessons have been learned. The front nine continues to produce more birdies and eagles than the back, so the golfer who saves strokes on the inward half will find an advantage over the weekend. A massive number of golfers tied for the 58th spot, which means that over 75 are through to the weekend. Four things were learned by this writer on day two of the 102nd PGA Championship, and you will learn them, too. As a bonus, the fifth thing learned today are the predictions made, in anticipation of a memorable Saturday at TPC-Harding Park.
1. The plight of the Englishman
England gave professional golf Harry Vardon, JH Taylor, James Braid, Ted Ray, Nick Faldo, Justin Rose, and Danny Willett. Their commonality is the major title. All won at least one. Another passel of flyers of St. George’s cross has been unable to gain membership into this organization, and they include some of today’s most known names: Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Paul Casey, and Ian Poulter. All have exhibited tremendous capacity in team and tour play, yet the illusory major championship has continued to elude them. This week, Tommy Fleetwood and the aforementioned Casey find themselves inside the top ten through 36 holes.
Fleetwood was the first to solve the back nine this week, with four birdies for 31. He was out in 33 strokes, where he had his lone, day-two bogey, and currently sits in 2nd position, at minus-six. Fleetwood’s closest brushes with major glory were 2018 at Shinnecock Hills, where he came 2nd at the US Open, and 2019 at the Open Championship, where Shane Lowry relegated him to another runner-up finish. Casey has two handfulls of top-ten finishes in the big four events, but has rarely challenged, late in the day. His trend is subtle but positive: 68 on day one and 67 on day two. The three-time US PGA Tour winner made more birdies on Thursday, but had a bogey and double count against him. On Friday, his work showed the type of consistency that will serve him well over the weekend. Three birdies against zero bogies brought him to minus-five total. If Casey or Fleetwood can play 36 holes the next two days in minus-six, he should find himself in the thick of things.
2. Haotong Li returns to the spotlight
There was a time, mid 2010s, when Haotong Li was on short lists to break through and win multple times, perhaps even a major. Li broke through at the China Open in 2016, then jumped up another level at the Dubai Desert Classic in 2018. The breakthrough stopped there, at least for a couple of years. Now, it’s 2020, the world has turned upside down at least once, and Haotong Li has the lead halfway through the PGA Championship. Much like his career to date, day two was a tale of of two halves. Over the first ten holes, Li logged five birdies; for the next eight holes, he held onto par and finished the day at 65 for a two-shot lead. No matter which of the six who sit a pair of strokes behind he plays with on Saturday, Li will have to reckon with his own potential and the magnitude of the moment.
3. In the hunt
Haotong Li can be forgiven for hearing the echoing footsteps of two former PGA champions, Brooks Koepka and Jason Day. Also at his heels are Justin Rose (US Open champion) and two of the hottest golfers on the planet, Tommy Fleetwood and Daniel Berger. From this vantage point, Koepka is the greatest threat. I might have written biggest, but that is currently Bryson #BigBangTheory DeChambeau. Concerns about his knee injury have gone away, and the four-time major title holder has the a known look in his eyes. Koepka went round in 68 strokes, and will play with Justin Rose in the third-last pairing. After them will come Berger and Day, with Fleetwood and Li as anchors.
4. Guys we will miss
The 36-hole cut came at one over par, and nearly 80 golfers moved on to round three. As for the rest, home they go. Catching trains and planes out of San Francisco are Rickie Fowler and Marc Leishman, two golfers always at the top of the predictions list, but yet to inscribe his name on a major-event chalice. Zach Johnson went from 66 to 76 and is down the road. Tyrrell Hatton and Joaquim Niemann are also checked out of their respective hotels, as are former PGA champions Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner, and Jimmy Walker.
5. Prediction Time
Most likely to seize the 3rd-round lead: Koepka
Most likely to drop out of the top five: Rose
Most likely to drop out of the top ten: Li
Most likely to jump into the top five: Xander Schauffele (currentl t11 at minus-four)
Most likely to jump into the top ten: Hideki Matsuyama (currently t15 at minus-three)
Biggest round three surprise: Lanto Griffin, but we don’t know why
Golfer who will slowly fade away: Day