By Rory Carroll
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - In one of the most anticipated sporting events since the COVID-19 pandemic sent sports into a deep freeze in March, the PGA Championship comes to San Francisco this week with several top players out to make history.
Originally scheduled for May, the tournament was pushed back to August, when San Francisco's thick fog often blankets the city.
Starting on Thursday, it will be the first of three majors this year, with the world's top players competing to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy and collect a $1.98 million cheque on Sunday.
Yet the winner will do so without fans in attendance for the first time in the tournament's 102-year history due to the pandemic, sapping energy and ambiance from TPC Harding Park.
"It's going to be very different," said four-time PGA Championship winner Tiger Woods, who in normal times would have a flock of fans at every hole he played.
"But it's still a major championship. It's still the best players in the world. We all understand that going into it, so there's going to be plenty of energy from the competitive side."
All eyes will be on the 44-year-old Woods, who is looking to win his 16th major title and record-breaking 83rd PGA Tour victory.
Yet he is decidedly an underdog, having only played once since the tour resumed in June. The chilly conditions could also cause his surgically-repaired back to tighten up, limiting his movement.
KOEPKA, SPIETH EYE HISTORY
Favourite Brooks Koepka is looking to become the only player to win the tournament three years in a row since it switched from being a matchplay event to a stroke play event in 1958.
Walter Hagen won the tournament four consecutive times between 1924-1927 and five times overall.
Koepka has been in this position before. He won back-to-back U.S. Open titles in 2017 and 2018 but fell short of capturing a third when he was beaten to the trophy by Gary Woodland at Pebble Beach in 2019.
"I've already dealt with it at the U.S. Open," he said when asked about the added pressure.
"I feel like I know how to handle it and I played pretty well. I just got beat," he said.
"My game feels like it's in really, really good shape right now."
A victory this week would give Jordan Spieth a career Grand Slam, something only Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have achieved in the men's game.
"It's probably the number one goal in the game of golf for me right now," he said.
"I'd love to be able to hold all four trophies, and this is the one that's in the way."
Whoever wins will have earned their victory at what Koepka called a "big boy's golf course".
Harding Park's narrow fairways are lined with overhanging Cypress trees and it features a nasty rough that will punish errant tee shots. Power without precision will not get the job done.
The cool coastal fog will also keep the ball from travelling as far as it would in hotter climates, making the 7,251 yard par-70 municipal course play much longer.
"If you can put the ball in the fairway, you're going to have a great chance," said ESPN golf analyst Andy North.
"It's not going to be just a bomber's paradise."
(Editing by Toby Davis)