US PGA Championship 2020: Why a Briton could win at Harding Park, San Francisco

US PGA Championship
Date: 6-9 August Venue: Harding Park, San Francisco
Coverage: Commentary on BBC Radio 5 live Sports Extra and text updates on the BBC Sport website across all four days

Could Britain be on the verge of celebrating a rare US PGA victory when major championship golf returns to the sporting calendar this week?

History offers little cause for optimism, but hopeful signs that decades of hurt could be reversed are evident at Harding Park in San Francisco.

Since this major became a 72-hole strokeplay event in 1958, there have been no British winners, with only Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy providing UK joy. And there have been just two other European winners: Irishman Padraig Harrington in 2008 and Germany’s Martin Kaymer in 2010.

An American, Justin Thomas, has just knocked a Spaniard, Jon Rahm, from the world number one spot and US players occupy 10 of the top 15 places in the rankings.

So, portents are admittedly not great. But British golf fans still might have something to celebrate come Sunday night – or early Monday morning as it will be over here, with San Francisco eight hours behind British Summer Time.

It could just be that this major, behind closed doors and held like no other before, will yield a rather uncharacteristic result. A quartet of Englishmen offer genuine hope of bursting the bubble at the highest level.

There is much to admire about Tyrrell Hatton’s chances of landing a first major despite a disappointing showing at the WGC-St Jude Invitational in Memphis.

The 28-year-old has won two of his past seven tournaments, including the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March. Since lockdown, he has posted a tie for third and a share of fourth in his two other PGA Tour appearances.

Despite a conspicuously hot temper, he is increasingly adept at channelling his emotions in a positive way. The absence of usually boisterous San Francisco fans may prove beneficial for this uncomplicated but highly effective golfer.

Tough but fair course set-ups, typical of this championship, suit his game and two of his five major top 10s have come in the US PGA.

Matthew Fitzpatrick is another Englishman with eye-catching form having been third at Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial tournament and then sixth in the World Golf Championships event.

Reunited with regular caddie Billy Foster, and having seen his coaching team for the first time since lockdown, much seems to be falling into place at the right time for the 25-year-old.

In Memphis, he fired a brilliant second-round 64 with a red-hot performance on the greens. “I feel like I’m a good putter statistically over the last few years,” he said.

“I always have in my mind that I’m not playing as well as my score suggests, but it’s part of the game. The aim is to hole the putts, it’s not to just lag them up.”

Fitzpatrick has stated that majors are his priority for 2020 and the former US amateur champion has made solid progress during six PGA Tour events since lockdown.

Compatriot Tom Lewis made a spectacular showing in Memphis where he shared second place behind champion Thomas after weekend rounds of 61 and 66 at TPC Southwind.

Two years ago, Lewis was ranked outside the world’s top 400, but the 29-year-old has clambered from Challenge Tour level on both sides of the Atlantic to play on the world stage.

Such progression is hard earned and graduating among hungry, young talent all desperate for a crack at the riches of the main tours is some achievement.

It inspires the sort of inner confidence he feels at the moment. “I feel comfortable, my swing feels free, the putting’s getting better, it’s getting freer,” Lewis said after his high finish in Memphis.

“When I’m good, I’m good – but my bad needs to get a little better if I want to compete consistently.”

Lewis is now a seasoned competitor, realising potential first shown with his 65 as an amateur to lead the first round of the 2011 Open at Royal St George’s. This will be his second US PGA after missing the cut at Bethpage Black last year.

Matt Wallace showed his liking for tough major set-ups, finishing third in that championship 14 months ago. Fourth place at Memorial last month is his most encouraging result since lockdown.

With 10 professional victories, four of them on the European Tour, the 30-year-old is renowned for capitalising on winning positions.

Admittedly, the next step into the winners’ circle at a major would be a giant leap, but he does not lack the necessary ambition or courage to take it on.

There are more established UK challengers this week, but current form is far from persuasive. Tommy Fleetwood has not fired in the two tournaments he has completed since lockdown, despite remaining a world class talent.

The same can be said of Justin Rose. Having just turned 40, he is in his worst slump for a decade, having not won for 18 months.

Five missed cuts in his past seven events – including his past three tournaments – offers little encouragement since his split with coach Sean Foley. But Rose is tenacious and the demands of a major could inspire an upturn in form.

Inevitably, McIlroy – a two-time US PGA champion – commands short odds as he seeks a fifth major triumph, though it would be a first in six years.

It would not be a surprise to see the 2012 and 2014 winner click this week, such are his prodigious talents, and he has form on this course having won the 2015 WGC Matchplay at Harding Park. Equally, a mediocre showing would not come as a shock either.

Behind closed doors, McIlroy’s approach play has been relatively awry, his wedges are blunted weapons and his competitive bounce has been flattened.

Like everyone else, the Ulsterman has waited a uniquely lengthy period for the first major of the year. The delayed opportunity to properly exorcise ghosts from his missed cut at the Open at Royal Portrush must be particularly frustrating.

On home soil he buckled under a weight of anticipation and expectancy, unlike Shane Lowry, who won the most recent major to be played, and the Irishman showed a return to form with a strong finish last week. The empty surrounds of Harding Park will be nothing like the fervent scenes in Northern Ireland a year ago though.

McIlroy has not been inspired by the sterile surrounds, but maybe a major tag can make a crucial difference. He could capitalise while not burdened by a weight of expectation.

The challenge will be immense, though, especially from a home contingent full of in-form Americans. Thomas, Webb Simpson, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau have all won in recent weeks.

Brooks Koepka returned to form in Memphis and, at last, looks a proper threat to win an unprecedented third PGA in a row in the strokeplay era.

Current form suggests the European with best chance of lifting the Wannamaker Trophy is Rahm, who went to the top of the world rankings with last month’s impressive win at the Memorial.

But don’t discount the clutch of young Englishmen – the likes of Hatton, Fitzpatrick, Lewis and Wallace. They are potentially capable of rewriting history in an already unique major.

They certainly add to a heady anticipatory mix for what could prove a thrilling shootout involving young and exciting names from both sides of the Atlantic.

It is such a shame there will be no-one there to see it.

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