When the world’s best players competed in last week’s WGC Fed-Ex St. Jude Invitational event in Memphis they encountered routine August temps over 90 each day with humidity a constant presence. This week’s PGA Championship in the City by the Bay is a far cry from that and is in total alignment with the famed quote immortalized by humorist Mark Twain — “The coldest winter I ever faced was a summer in San Francisco.”
In the lead-up to the start of golf’s first major of 2020, the primary talking point for the players has been the stark adjustment to the playing conditions they are now dealing with at TPC Harding Park.
Since the return to play by the PGA TOUR in June the weather pattern has been fairly predictable — warm temperatures providing a constant presence. Players have been able to routinely go from one location to the next not having to concern themselves about how far shots will carry and what adjustments they will need to make through any round of play.
Upon arrival this week in San Francisco the storyline has changed — dramatically.
TPC Harding Park is less than a mile from the Pacific Ocean and summer along the Pacific coast, at this time of year, can be a bit startling for the uninitiated. Those arriving wearing tee-shirts quickly upgrade the wardrobe with far denser pull overs and reinforced outdoor jackets.
While interior central California can reach temperatures close to 100, the intense heat often means a butting up against the colder Pacific water and the result is a marine layer of dense fog that can quickly envelope any coastal location for the balance of the AM period.
This week’s PGA Championship will encounter a daily routine of persistent fog and far cooler conditions. Temperatures will rise only to the high 60s and the wind pattern will be coming off the Pacific to varying levels.
Tee shots that routinely flew beyond 300 yards in Memphis will be looking at a far lesser total this week. How much less? Hitting drivers 280 yards may be the norm for the longest of players. 5-irons that easily went beyond 200 yards a week ago in Tennessee may only reach 180 yards at TPC Harding Park. Cooler Pacific air does not provide a friendly launching pad.
Tiger Woods, a California native, albeit from Southern California, outlined the situation in the clearest of terms.
“I think that for me when it’s cooler like this, it’s just make sure that my core stays warm, layering up properly. I know I won’t have the same range of motion as I would back home in Florida where it’s 95 every day. That’s just the way it is. Talking to some of the guys yesterday, they were laughing at their TrackMan numbers already. They don’t have the swing speed or ball speed they did last week (Memphis). It’s just the way it is. It’s going to be playing longer. It’s heavy air whether the wind blows or not, but it’s still going to be heavy.
The ball doesn’t fly very far here. I’ve known that from all the years and times I’ve had to qualify up in this area. It’s always 20 degrees cooler here than it is down there in Palo Alto. We knew that coming. I think the weather forecast is supposed to be like this all week: Marine layer, cool, windy and we are all going to have to deal with it.”
TPC Harding Park has hosted recent big-time professional events but the timing of those events meant either a spring or fall time frame. In those settings the weather pattern is a far a cry from the “gloom and doom fog” that takes place during the summer months of June through August.
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In tandem with the cooler temperatures is a much noticeable thicker and deeper layer of rough lining the fairways.
Four-time major winner and twice defending champion Brooks Koepka weighed in on its effect.
“The rough out here is pretty thick. You can get some pretty juicy lies and not advance it very far. But it all depends. Is it going to be wet? I think it will be, especially in the mornings, so it could be quite tough to control your distance, spin, things like that. But I don’t think it’s overly bad right now. Come Sunday, might be different. Might grow two inches, who knows, an inch. Anything could make a big difference. I don’t think it’s bad, but it’s not the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Others in the field like Tony Finau shared similar feelings.
“Well, it’s definitely thick enough this week to be a factor. I played the back nine for the first time yesterday, and I think it’s about a 50/50 chance as far as the lie. I’ve had two lies yesterday on Hole 12 that were three feet apart. One I could easily get a 7-iron on and the other one I was just trying to hack out 40, 50 yards. It’s almost luck of the draw when you hit it in the rough. I think you’re going to see some guys get fortunate and hit it on to the green and I think you’ll see some guys hack it out and not hit it anywhere.”
Woods is playing in the morning draw Thursday with Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy and it will be a clear signal on how much of an impact club selection will play with the damp and heavy air conditions.
Thomas took a positive approach to what this week’s competition will mean for the field.
“Yeah, the fun thing about the PGA is that I feel like we play a wide variety of golf courses. All great golf courses, but I mean, I didn’t play Bethpage last year, but this is different than Bethpage. It’s way different than Quail Hollow. It’s different than — I’m trying to think — different than Bellerive, different than Baltusrol. Yeah, it’s just — they’re all different, but they’re all good tests for what they are. It’s interesting for that reason.
“But this course is great. It’s fun. It’s right in front of you. It’s not tricked up. You just have to hit the fairways. You have to have control of your ball. I mean, I’ve only played 18 holes, but it seems pretty difficult in my eyes. I think it’s going to be a little bit more of a challenge this week than maybe some in the past.”
Mark Twain passed away in 1910 but the words he penned will be uppermost on the minds of all those playing in the 102nd PGA Championship. Those best able to make the needed adjustments will clearly be in the hunt. That may be the only warm thought that happens for the man who claims possession of the famed Wannamaker Trophy when play concludes.