Sobel: Ranking Every Golfer in 2019 PGA Championship Field

Sobel: Ranking Every Golfer in 2019 PGA Championship Field article feature image

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Dustin Johnson

  • The 2019 PGA Championship starts on May 16 at Bethpage Black Course.
  • Jason Sobel ranks the entire PGA Championship field, 1 to 156, so bettors and DFS players know which players to back and which to fade.

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Welcome to Strong Island. Again.

I grew up here, somewhere in between Shinnecock Hills GC, last year’s U.S. Open host, and Bethpage State Park, home to five golf courses of varying degrees, including the devilish Black, which will hold the PGA Championship this week, its third major in 17 years.

Even though I didn’t play much golf when I lived here, I still consider Bethpage sort of like a home club. It’s where golf-hungry amateurs show up in droves every day, from top-level players trying to catch their big break to poor schlubs who think they’re much better than they really are.

(True story: Two years ago, our group of three was joined on the first tee at the Black by a single, who was huffing and puffing before he ever hit a shot. “I haven’t played in 15 years,” he declared, then ignored the famous signage and teed off from the tips. The next five hours went about as poorly for him as you could imagine.)

It’s because of this provincial protectiveness that Bethpage is always a bit rowdier than any other venue. The fans think they own this place — in a way, they do — and they believe it’s their birthright to watch the world’s best players chunk shots out of the nasty rough or three-putt the puzzling greens.

It hasn’t always worked out this way, but if you’re looking to bet a winner this week, give a slight advantage to those guys who play with some swagger. Confidence, maybe even cockiness, could be a key intangible as players try to inherit the mindset of these brazen galleries.

A few other things I’m looking for in contenders this week: Distance, as the course plays “only” 7,459 yards on the card, but repeated 8-irons will offer a major advantage over 6-irons; birdie-or-better percentages from over 150 yards, because there aren’t many wedge approach shots; and while we shouldn’t blindly consider leaderboards from any of the previous U.S. Open or FedEx Cup playoff events, there should be a correlation to players who have enjoyed success on colder, wet venues, especially in the Northeast.

With that in mind, let’s get to my ranking of the entire 156-man field, which does indeed begin with a few guys who own plenty of swagger.

PGA Championship Player Rankings

1. Dustin Johnson

Is it possible to be the world’s No. 1-ranked player and still fly under the radar into a major championship? DJ is proving that it is. Despite two worldwide wins already this year and a T-2 at the Masters when it never quite seemed like he even had his best stuff, the likes of Woods, Koepka and McIlroy are all drawing more attention.

That should suit Johnson just fine. He’s won multiple times in the New York area before, but it’s another major venue, Oakmont, where he won the 2016 U.S. Open, which might correlate nicely to Bethpage Black. It isn’t often you can pick the No. 1 player and not have it feel like a chalky selection, yet that just might be the case with DJ.

2. Brooks Koepka

Let’s see … a major championship … on a big ballpark … with the pressure of playing in front of rabid spectators … yup, this one checks all the right boxes for Koepka. He’s won three major titles in the past two years, but I’m not sure any of those venues suited him better than this one should.

It’s not just that the course fits his style, either. The South Florida native’s bravado and swagger is perfectly New York — and more to the point, perfectly Bethpage, where amateur hackers show up every day to play the tips, armed with the false confidence that they can tame this beast. Koepka insists he gets overlooked by the media, but expect him to be a fan favorite this week.

3. Tony Finau

Despite a stellar recent record at majors — four top 10s in his last five starts — Finau still owns just one PGA Tour victory, which came at the alternate-field Puerto Rico Open three years ago.

I loved his answer when I recently asked whether he felt like he needed another win before he could claim a first major: “I don’t feel that way at all. When I stepped onto the first tee at Augusta National with Tiger and Fran, I felt like I could win. I didn’t feel like, oh, let’s notch another experience under my belt and learn something. I’m ready to win major championships. Why not now? Last year, I felt that way; this year, I don’t. I feel quite different. I don’t feel like I need to win another tournament.”

4. Rory McIlroy

You can go crazy trying to figure out McIlroy these days. Through the first two-and-a-half months of this year, his final-round scoring was abysmal, often getting into contention, but never sealing the deal. Then he won The Players Championship and all was forgotten, he’d apparently righted the ship.

That was, until the Wells Fargo, when he trailed by just two strokes entering the final round, but posted a Sunday 73 and got boat-raced by the likes of Max Homa and Joel Dahmen. Perhaps more than any other player, McIlroy owns the talent to lap an entire field, but there’s been something holding him back on most Sundays so far, something that’s keeping me from placing him higher on this list.

5. Tiger Woods

No major suits Woods better than the Masters, as we witnessed during his fifth career win at Augusta National last month. But I’ve always believed that the nature of the PGA Championship makes it very close. With traditionally low scoring, he can afford to make some mistakes, because birdies are often available.

He doesn’t need to drive the ball dead-straight (like a U.S. Open) and won’t get unlucky with multiple bad bounces (like an Open Championship). And yes, while that could be said for everyone else in the field as well, nobody has posted more red numbers over the years than Tiger. The more opportunities there are for birdies, the more ground he’ll gain on the field.

6. Jason Day

We’ve actually gotten to the point where Day needs to be dropped a few notches based on any potential fear about his health for a given week. So far this year, he’s bounced back and forth between being completely healthy, possibly needing career-threatening surgery, then being healthy again, with a handful of mid-round stretching exercises in between, just to give us enough pause to think he might be bouncing the other way again.

That was the case at the Masters, when it looked as if he might withdraw after just a few holes on Thursday, only to not only complete four rounds, but finish in a share of fifth place on the leaderboard. Cooler temps this week should have us even more worried than usual.

7. Jon Rahm

Many observers have expressed the opinion that until the 24-year-old Rahm can temper his on-course tantrums, he’ll remain only a contender for major championships instead of a winner. That’s the kind of analysis which sounds like it should be right, but doesn’t necessarily own any evidentiary proof.

The truth is, whatever he’s doing is working. Rahm owns three top 10s in his last five major starts, including at T-9 at last month’s Masters. If he feels the need to slam a club to the turf in anger or mutter a few choice words in Spanish or even obliterate a tee marker in order to get his mind right for the next shot, then trying to act “more mature” might not have the desired — or expected — effect.

8. Bubba Watson

At first glance, this venue should be a terrific fit for Bubba. He’s able to hammer away off the tee, which should provide a distance advantage into the greens. It requires him to work the ball both ways, which he prefers over trying to hit a straight ball all day. And, perhaps most importantly, there are plenty of trees and other landmarks to offer valuable sightlines. (If that sounds immaterial, just check out his record on wide-open courses without many aiming points. Hint: It’s not good.)

My only reservation here is that, well, Bubba doesn’t like crowds, he doesn’t like noise and he’ll be playing in front of perhaps the rowdiest, noisiest crowds in years.

9. Xander Schauffele

It’s no coincidence that Schauffele has now competed in eight career major championships and finished sixth or better in half of them. Like Koepka and Finau, he is a new breed of player who has seemingly figured out a way to get his game to peak during the biggest weeks. That has a lot to do with the fact that he’s solid in every aspect of the game, without having to rely on one type of shot to contend.

Perhaps the only surprise here is that he remains criminally underrated, the world’s ninth-ranked player who might garner less attention than just about anyone in the top 20. You get the sense, though, that he’s just fine with that, continuing to contend at majors while remaining overlooked.

10. Thomas Pieters

The chalk stops here. It’s a surprise that Pieters hasn’t elevated to superstar status yet, a level he seemed destined for just a few short years ago. He was T-4 at the Masters in 2017 and T-6 at this tourney last year, a pair of results which suggest he’s good enough to hang with the world’s best on any given week.

His results this year have been good-but-not-great, though there are clues that, like some of his big-hitting brethren, he might derive a little more motivation from the bigger events. If you’re looking for a value pick to finish top 10 or a cheaper DFS option, I really like Pieters’ chances to build on his result at Bellerive last year.

11. Adam Scott

While it seems like he’s striking the ball as well as ever and putting just as badly, Scott actually ranks 40th in tee to green stats and 14 in putting this season.

12. Justin Rose

His recent MC at the Masters was a shock, considering his strong track record at Augusta and the fact that he was top 20 at every major last year.

13. Rickie Fowler

I spoke with Fowler two weeks ago about winning a major and he sounded as confident as ever, though admitted, “The first one will be the toughest.”

14. Francesco Molinari

This spot on the list could be bulletin board material for a guy who’s finished 5-6-1 in his last three major starts, simply running out of gas on the back nine at the Masters.

15. Keith Mitchell

Ten years ago, a giant-killer named Y.E. Yang parlayed a Honda Classic victory into a PGA title later in the year. Mitchell is hoping history will repeat itself.

16. Aaron Wise

The cold and rain should remind the former NCAA champion of his college days at the University of Oregon. After a slow start, he’s played better lately.

17. Patrick Cantlay

If you blinked, you missed it, but there was a hot second on Sunday at the Masters when it appeared as if Cantlay might’ve been moving into the driver’s seat.

18. Hideki Matsuyama

His ball-striking is amongst the best in the world, but the question remains: Can Matsuyama putt well enough for four straight days to win a major?

19.Sergio Garcia

Seventeen years ago at Bethpage, Sergio was hounded by catcalls from the New York fans — and it might not be much different this time around.

20. Jason Kokrak

One of the PGA Tour’s longest hitters has turned into one of the most consistent players this season, still without a missed cut in 14 starts.

21. Si Woo Kim

Kim is always a risk-reward pick, armed with both a high ceiling and a low floor that often makes him worth a shot.

22. Paul Casey

A badly missed cut at the Masters notwithstanding, Casey has played solid throughout the year — and his brand of length and height on shots makes him a viable contender.

23. Sungjae Im

The most consistent rookie on the PGA Tour, Im doesn’t always play great, but he rarely plays poorly, leaving some to believe he’ll be a big-time player very soon.

24. Phil Mickelson

Lefty often speaks with great confidence before majors, but recently admitted he’s “pretty nervous” about his game, which just might be a terrific bit of reverse psychology.

25. Keegan Bradley

As a member of the St. John’s golf team who frequently practiced on the Black, Bradley has likely seen this course as much as anyone in the field.

26. Henrik Stenson

It was a slow start to the year for Stenson, but he’s shown signs of trending in the right direction at the right time, just before the year’s final three majors.

27. Billy Horschel

Always a solid iron player, Horschel has played some strong golf in the Northeast, with top-five results in New York, Boston and Philly in the past.

28. Patrick Reed

The last time a PGA Tour-sanctioned event was held at Bethpage, Reed was a winner three years ago, though a new swing coach could have him still working through things.

29. Ian Poulter

The numbers have been terrific this year: In 11 worldwide starts, he’s finished 12th or better in more than half of them, including a T-12 at the Masters.

30. Kyle Stanley

It was a rough start to the year for Stanley, but he finished T-21 at the Masters — his best result in 17 career majors — and followed that up with a T-8 at Quail Hollow.

31. Gary Woodland

32. Scott Piercy

33. Jhonattan Vegas

34. Tommy Fleetwood

35. Bryson DeChambeau

36. Lucas Glover

37. Matt Fitzpatrick

38. Webb Simpson

39. Matt Kuchar

40. Jordan Spieth

There have been flashes of improvement in his last few starts, but if you’re keeping score, that’s now 14 consecutive starts without a top-20 result.

41. Emiliano Grillo

42. Tyrrell Hatton

43. Kevin Kisner

44. Louis Oosthuizen

45. Daniel Berger

46. Joel Dahmen

47. Matt Wallace

Following a pair of missed cuts in the United States, he returned to Europe to finish T-2 this past weekend, hoping that momentum will carry back over here with him.

48. Sung Kang

49. Julian Suri

50. Kiradech Aphibarnrat

51. Ryan Palmer

52. Haotong Li

53. Cameron Smith

54. Adam Hadwin

55. Eddie Pepperell

56. Jorge Campillo

Not many would place Campillo on a list of the hottest players right now, but he owns an astounding five top-three finishes in his last seven European Tour starts.

57. Luke List

58. Shane Lowry

59. Pat Perez

60. Steve Stricker

61. Justin Harding

62. Jason Dufner

63. Graeme McDowell

64. Byeong-Hun An

Good player, good form, good course fit, but a neck injury shortened his final round at Quail Hollow, potentially leaving him less than 100% entering this week.

65. Sam Burns

66. Charles Howell III

67. Thorbjorn Olesen

68. Ryan Moore

69. Kevin Na

70. Branden Grace

71. Rafa Cabrera Bello

72. Max Homa

Watch out for the player with nothing to lose. Homa is riding a heater into this one, winning his first PGA Tour title in his last start to qualify for his first major.

73. Richard Sterne

74. J.B. Holmes

75. Russell Knox

76. Chez Reavie

77. Brandt Snedeker

78. Lee Westwood

79. Abraham Ancer

80. Marc Leishman

Yet another player whose chances may have been hampered by a recent injury, as he was forced to withdraw with a back issue prior to hitting a shot last week.

81. David Lipsky

82. Erik Van Rooyen

83. C.T. Pan

84. Jim Furyk

85. Michael Thompson

86. Andrew Putnam

87. Padraig Harrington

Following a surprisingly impressive week at Trinity Forest, the three-time major champion should come to Bethpage riding some much-needed momentum.

88. J.J. Spaun

89. Beau Hossler

90. Joost Luiten

91. Zach Johnson

92. Ryan Fox

93. Tom Lewis

94. Troy Merritt

95. Jimmy Walker

The last time a PGA Championship was held in the Northeast, Walker won at Baltusrol, but he hasn’t had a result of better than T-29 in a full year.

96. Dylan Frittelli

97. Martin Kaymer

98. Brian Gay

99. Joaquin Niemann

100. Harold Varner

101. Danny Willett

102. Jazz Janewattanond

103. Bronson Burgoon

104. Mikko Korhonen

105. Charley Hoffman

This one defies logic: Hoffman has played well at other majors, but owns just two made cuts in nine career PGA starts, with a best finish of T-40.

106. Alex Noren

107. Richy Werenski

108. Lucas Bjerregaard

109. Corey Conners

110. Cameron Champ

111. Kevin Tway

112. Martin Trainer

113. Brian Harman

114. Shugo Imahira

115. Ross Fisher

116. Kelly Kraft

117. J.T. Poston

As an alternate, got into the field Tuesday when Vijay Singh withdrew, but won’t have to hit as many balls on the range as Singh.

118. Patton Kizzire

119. Brendan Jones

120. Chesson Hadley

121. Kurt Kitayama

122. Danny Lee

123. Adam Long

124. Brandon Stone

125. Alex Bjork

126. Michael Kim

127. Lucas Herbert

128. Y.E. Yang

It’s been 10 years since Yang held off some guy named Tiger Woods to win his lone major championship title — and it took that long for Woods to get his next one.

129. Ryan Armour

130. Satoshi Kodaira

131. Shaun Norris

132. Adrian Otaegui

133. Mike Lorenzo-Vera

134. Rich Beem

135. Shaun Micheel

136. John Daly

137. Alex Beach

As I do every year, the 20 PGA club professionals are listed last, in order of their results at the PGA Club Pro Championship — not because they can’t compete, just because their performances are so difficult to assess.

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138. Danny Balin

139. Stuart Deane

140. Jason Caron

141. Ben Cook

142. Rich Berberian, Jr.

143. Rod Perry

144. Jeffrey Schmid

145. Marty Jertson

146. Casey Russell

147. Brian Mackey

148. Ryan Vermeer

149. Rob Labritz

150. Craig Bowden

151. Justin Bertsch

152. John O’Leary

153. Cory Schneider

154. Craig Hocknull

155. Andrew Filbert

156. Tyler Hall

With a birdie on the third playoff hole, the pro from Upper Montclair CC in Clifton, N.J., secured his first PGA Championship berth in what might not be a home game, but still isn’t too far away.

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