Sobel: How Far Back Is Too Far Back Entering the PGA Championship’s Final Round?

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Photo credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images. Pictured: Tommy Fleetwood

It’s time once again for America’s favorite game show, where we try figure out how many players are still in contention for the current major championship with one round left to play. That’s right, everybody. Get ready for…

(crowd chants the next part in unison)

“How far back is too far back?”

If this was some Golf Channel-style TV production, you’d have to wade through a half-hour of analytics and historical information that finally reached a crescendo when the contestants ventured a few wild guesses at the end of the show.

It’s not, though. So we can bypass all that stuff and get right to it.

Six.

That’s the answer. Six shots is too far back for this PGA Championship entering the final round.

Anyone within five of the lead still has a chance.

Look, I get it. As the sole judge and jury for “How far back is too far back?” I completely understand the fact that 11 majors have been won by a player who was more than five back going into the final round. That includes four editions of the PGA Championship, most notably John Mahaffey’s come-from-behind win after a seven-shot deficit in 1978.

So, how come five inside the number is in play, but six is too much?

It’s a numbers game that we’ll get into, but it starts with history that is much more recent than any of those older comebacks. Dustin Johnson trailed by four strokes entering Saturday’s third round and now leads by one entering Sunday’s final round. If he can move up a total of five strokes on the leaderboard, there’s hope for those in that situation right now.

All of which means there are exactly 20 players still in contention for the Wanamaker Trophy.

Say goodbye to the outside chances of Jon Rahm, Webb Simpson, Patrick Cantlay and Patrick Reed. They can each finish strong and cash a nice paycheck, but they can’t win this tournament.

Let’s work our way up the leaderboard, starting with those at 4-under, exactly five shots behind Johnson.

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The 4-Under Group

This trio of players includes Hideki Matsuyama, Bernd Wiesberger and Mike Lorenzo-Vera. Should we really think any of them is going to triumph at TPC Harding Park? Of course not, but they’re at least not mathematically eliminated, as they like to say in pennant races.

The 5-Under Group

Next on the board are Joel Dahmen, Si Woo Kim, Matthew Wolff, Xander Schauffele and Haotong Li at 5-under, all four back. They each have a chance, but they’ll need to post a DJ-like round, echoing the leader’s third-round 5-under 65 just to get into consideration.

While our guy Si Woo might very well try to become the first major winner in the TV era to never be seen on TV, the pick from this group of five has to be Schauffele, who was a popular pre-tournament pick amongst the masses and really hasn’t played his best golf over the past two days.

The 6-Under Group

Moving up one more spot, we’ve got Bryson DeChambeau, Tony Finau, Justin Rose, Jason Day, Daniel Berger and Tommy Fleetwood each at 6-under and three back.

Now here’s our sweet spot: a half-dozen world-class players, not so far back that they’ve got to post something uncommonly low, but behind enough that they should feel a sense of urgency to step on the gas pedal from the start.

If you’re looking to place a few live outrights at decent prices, I’d recommend you start looking at this group – and my personal choice would probably be Fleetwood, who seemed a bit lackluster while playing in Saturday’s final pairing, but should be able to turn things around.

The 7-Under Group

Now we get to the guys at 7-under – three of ‘em total, including Brooks Koepka, Collin Morikawa and Paul Casey.

The masses will focus on Koepka here, and for good reason, considering he’s won four majors in the past three years and is the two-time defending champion of this event. He’s certainly talking a good game. Following his third round, he was asked about the competition on the CBS telecast and boasted, “DJ’s only won one … I don’t know the other guys that are up there.” That’s pretty bold – and pretty true, too.

The 8-Under Group

You might have to be a bit bold, too, if you’d like to make a live play on either of the guys at 8-under: Scottie Scheffler and Cameron Champ.

If I had to take one of ‘em, my choice is Champ for a few different reasons. The first is that Scheffler is fresh off a third-round 65, and it’ll be tough to chase it with another low one. The second is that Champ avoided a final-round pairing with DJ, instead going in the penultimate group with Morikawa in what should be a more comfortable twosome. Throw in the fact that Champ is a NorCal guy and owns a bit more of a pedigree at the highest level, and he’s the pick amongst these two.

Dustin Johnson (9-Under)

Then there’s Johnson, who’s been a complete enigma for the past six weeks.

He shot 61-67 at the Travelers Championship weekend to win. He followed that with a pair of 80s to miss the Memorial Tournament cut. He then withdrew from the 3M Open, citing a back injury. And then he prepped for this week by posting four rounds in the 60s and finishing T-12 at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.

None of those, however, are the numbers you’re going to hear the most in regard to DJ on Sunday.

Instead, it’ll likely be these: Three times in his career, Johnson has owned the 54-hole lead at a major. On each of those three occasions, he’s failed to convert that lead into a victory – the U.S. Open in 2010, 2015 and 2018.

While his ratio of 21 career PGA TOUR wins with only a single major will be criticized for those misses, he should be equally praised for a career that has seen 17 top-10s in 42 major starts.

Maybe he’s learned from those past experiences with the lead. Maybe he’ll blow another one. Or maybe someone else will simply catch him from behind and rip it away.

Whatever the case, with 18 holes left to play, there are 20 players with a legitimate mathematical chance of winning this PGA Championship. One of the names listed in this article will be the first player to win a major in more than a year.

And with that, we come to a close. Thanks, as always, for playing along with yet another edition of, “How far back is too far back?”

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