By TOM LaMARRE
Jon Rahm of Spain, Scottie Scheffler and Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland have been trading the top rank in the World Golf Rankings for the last year or so.
And the three of them will be head-to-head again this week in the second major of the 2023 PGA Tour season, the 105th PGA Championship on the East Course at Oak Hill Country Club Rochester, N.Y.
In April, Rahm claimed his second career major title in the Masters and was stunned to learn he had become the first European player in history to win at Augusta National and also capture the U.S. Open, which he did in 2021 at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla.
“I find it hard to believe,” said Rahm, who has 20 victories as a pro and 11 on the PGA Tour. “If there’s anything better than accomplishing something like this, it’s making history. So, the fact that you tell me that, to be the first-ever European ever to do that, it’s hard to explain (how I feel).
“I don’t know what to tell you. It is a pretty good group of majors. Out of all the accomplishments and the many great players that have come before me, to be the first to do something like that, it’s a very humbling feeling.”
Said Scheffler, whose only major victory came in the 2022 Masters: “While I’m concerned with the No. 1 ranking, I want to play my best in the PGA Championship. If I can do one, the other should take care of itself.”
McIlroy has struggled lately after winning three times last year, including the Tour Championship, which gave him the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup.
Rory missed the cut in the Players and Masters, but looks forward to a home game of sorts in the PGA.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said McIlroy, who is a member at Oak Hill. “I think Andrew Green’s done a really good job with the course. I think the renovation has hopefully restored the East Course back to its former glory, I would say. I’m just hoping for a good weather week. I think that’s what everyone’s hoping for.
“I’m excited to go back to Oak Hill. From the last time I was there, or we were all there, my connection to Rochester got a lot stronger. So I’m excited to go and play a major championship in what feels like almost like a second home to me.”
Justin Thomas hopes to give the top three all they can handle.
Thomas captured the PGA Championship for the second time last year when he defeated Will Zalatoris in a playoff after also claiming the title in 2017.
“I’m starting to see a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Thomas, who has struggled this season and slipped to No. 13 in the world. “Like anything in your golf game, you’ve got to practice it. I felt like I had a good week practicing, tried to get a little bit more accustomed to it, and I’m starting to see a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I love old-school golf courses, so I’m looking forward to Oak Hill.”
It seems all the top players are.
1. Jon Rahm, Spain – The top-ranked player in the world won the Masters in April for his second major title to go with the 2021 U.S. Open. Rahm has won four times this year to give him 20 pro victories, including 11 on the PGA Tour. He is making his seventh start in the PGA Championship and his best finishes were a tie for fourth in 2018 and a tie for eighth in 2021.
2. Scottie Scheffler, United States – The second-ranked Scheffler, who has won the Players Championship and the Phoenix Open this season for six victories in just over a year, is coming off a tie for fifth in the Byron Nelson, his ninth top-10 of the season. The 2022 Masters champ is playing the PGA for the fourth time, having tied for fourth in 2020 and tied for eighth in 2021.
3. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland – Although the third-ranked McIlroy hasn’t played his best, missing the cut in the Players Championship and the Masters, plus tying for 47th at Wells Fargo, the winner of four majors including the PGA in 2012 and 2014, always is a threat. Rory won the CJ Cup for his 36th pro victory and tied for second in the Arnold Palmer Invitational this season.
4. Brooks Koepka, United States – The two-time PGA champion is being allowed to play in the second major of the year, despite leaving the PGA Tour for the lucrative jump to LIV Golf. Koepka, who also won the U.S. Open in 2018 and 2019, has three other top-five finishes in the PGA including a tie for second in two years ago. He also tied for second in the Masters this year.
5. Xander Schauffele, United States – The fifth-ranked Schauffele has recorded 10 finishes in the top-10 in the majors, including two seconds, but has yet to break through for that first big title. In six starts in the PGA, his best result was a tie for 10th in 2020 and he also tied for 13th last year. After winning three times last year, he has eight top-10s this season without winning.
6. Jason Day, Australia – The former world No. 1, who struggled in recent seasons because of a back injury, found the winners’ circle for the 18th time as a pro and 11th on the PGA Tour last week in the AT&T Byron Nelson. Day, who has 16 top-10 finishes in the major in his career, claimed his only major championship in the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
7. Patrick Cantlay, United States – The fourth-ranked Cantlay is another top player seeking his first major championship, having posted three top-10 results in the last four seasons, including a tie for third in the 2019 PGA. Despite not winning a major, he has nine pro victories including eight on the PGA Tour, and this season he has recorded five top-10 finishes without a victory.
8. Justin Thomas, United States – Another player trying to find his game, having fallen out of the top 10 in the world to No. 13 in the rankings, Thomas will be trying to repeat his play when won the PGA Championship in 2017 and last year, when he beat Will Zalatoris in a playoff. This season, he has been close with three finishes in the top 10, and a total of nine in the top 25.
9. Cameron Smith, Australia – The eighth-ranked Smith seemed to be on the verge of possibly becoming the best player in the world after he won the 2022 Players Championship and the 2022 Open Championship at St. Andrews, but then he jumped to LIV Golf. He has six top-10 finishes in the majors, and his best result in the PGA Championship was a tie for 13th last season.
10. Viktor Hovland, Norway – In addition to claiming his seventh pro victory by repeating in the Hero World Challenge late last year, Hovland has recorded nine results in the top-25 this season, including a tie for seventh in the Masters. He also tied for fourth in the Open Championship last year at St. Andrews. But his best result in the PGA was a tie for 30th in 2021.
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH: Collin Morikawa, United States; Dustin Johnson, United States; Matt Fitzpatrick, England; Tony Finau, United States; Max Homa, United States; Sungjae Im, South Korea; Tommy Fleetwood, England; Adam Scott, Australia; Jordan Spieth, United States; Hideki Matsuyama, Japan; Tom Kim, South Korea; Cameron Young, United States.
1. Wyndham Clark, United States – After claiming his first PGA Tour victory in the Wells Fargo and posting six top-10s, Clark will try to improve on his T-75 in the PGA last season.
2. Abraham Ancer, Mexico – Ancer, who won the 2021 WGC-FedEx St. Jude for one of his four professional victories, finished T-9 in the PGA last year, T-8 2021 and T-16 in 2019.
3. K.H. Lee, South Korea – A six-time winner as a pro, including two on the PGA Tour, Lee finished T-23 in the Masters for his best major finish. Had best PGA result at T-41 last year.
4. Sahith Theegala, United States – Theegala has only one pro victory, but has recorded seven T-10 finishes this season, including a solo ninth in the Masters. Making his debut in the PGA.
5. Kurt Kitayama, United States – Four-time winner as a pro, including the 2023 Arnold Palmer Invitational, Kitayama makes his fourth start in the PGA and his best was a T-51 three years ago.
For first-round tee times and results later, visit https://www.pgatour.com/leaderboard