What to expect on PGA Championship Sunday with such a crowded leaderboard

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Valhalla Golf Club has done it again. For all the griping about low scores and lack of strategy, the venue that has hosted some of the most thrilling PGA Championships has set the stage for yet another electric Sunday.

Not only are two players tied for the 54-hole lead, but 13 others are just five shots back and six are within three strokes. Of those 15 players inside the top-10, 10 are looking for their first ever major victory, while the rest are hoping to add to their total.

Just like it did in 2000 when Tiger Woods beat Bob May in a playoff or like we witnessed in 2014 when Rory McIlroy came storming back to win his fourth major, Sunday’s final round looks to have plenty of ingredients to provide yet another classic.

Here are five questions ahead of the final 18 holes:


What is it about Valhalla that’s creating such a crowded leaderboard?

Paolo Uggetti: Unsurprisingly, Louisville native Justin Thomas has explained the phenomenon of Valhalla well this week. Between the soft greens due to rain and the way the golf course forces the best players in the world to play it a single way (drive it well, putt it great) in order to succeed, Valhalla inevitably causes a leaderboard bottleneck.

“It just doesn’t matter what golf course you put us on, on planet Earth,” Thomas said. “If the greens are soft we’re going to tear it up. It just doesn’t have anything to defend itself.”

And tear it up they have. 15 players are double-digits under par heading into Sunday — more than twice as many as there ever have been at a major championship. Two players have shot major-low rounds already this week in Shane Lowry and Xander Schauffele thanks to hot putting performances, and it feels like the winner Sunday will be determined by who can catch fire on the greens.

“It’s hard to separate yourself,” Hovland said. “You’re going to have to make a bunch of birdies and roll a bunch of putts in.”

“It’s going to come down to a lot more than [putting] but it kind of feels that way with the greens being receptive and the fairways being receptive,” Schauffele said. “Hopefully it being a little bit — even drier, the ball might roll a little bit more. So yeah, it might come down to something like that.”

Mark Schlabach: There’s no question the soft conditions have helped the best golfers in the world. The 69.55 scoring average in the third round was the lowest average score to par (-1.45) in PGA Championship history.

There are six players within two shots of the lead entering the final round. Anyone in that group — and probably a few guys behind them — is capable of putting together a great round to capture the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday. Schauffele carded a 9-under 62 on Thursday. Seven golfers posted 65s on Friday. Lowry put up another 62 on Saturday.

Hovland said there are some easy holes on the course and a few difficult ones where you have to hit into the middle of the greens and hope for a par.

“I think just the greens being soft and having Zoysia around the greens, like it’s hard to separate yourself,” Hovland said. “If you miss in certain spots, guys seem to be able to spin it out of the bunker and spin it out of the fairway, so you can kind of get away with some bad shots.

“But if you catch fire, you can shoot a low score, which a couple of guys have done, but it’s hard to do that every single day, so that’s why I think you see the bunched scores.”


Who’s been the biggest surprise on the leaderboard so far?

Uggetti: It has to be Viktor Hovland. Just last week, Hovland was talking about how far away from good golf he felt. After splitting from his swing coach Joe Mayo, Hovland has been lost in the wilderness of swing tweaks and adjustments. The 2023 Tour Championship winner had no choice but to go back to Mayo this past week ahead of the PGA Championship and it seems to have worked.

“I’m surprised in the sense that — just how far away I felt last week,” Hovland said Saturday. “But I’m not surprised in the way that I’m here because, like, I never doubted my abilities. It was just kind of my machinery was not working very well. But now we’re moving in the right direction.”

Hovland admitted that his swing immediately felt better once returning to work with Mayo, adding that Mayo simply gave him one swing feel to work on over and over and it has paid dividends. Even though he thought he could do some “damage” this week, actually competing, however, was not something he thought was possible. Now, with a real chance at his first major he’s trying to maintain perspective.

“This has exceeded all expectations,” Hovland said. “My life is going to be pretty good if I don’t win tomorrow, and I’m going to have a few more chances after this, as well. All I’m going to do is just show up, do the best I can, and we’ll see how it goes.”

Whether Hovland wins tomorrow or not, the fact that he is even in contention this quickly after changing his swing should scare the rest of the golf world going forward.

Schlabach: How about Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre. He’s a two-time winner on the DP World Tour and was a member of the European Ryder Cup team that spanked the U.S. squad in Rome last year.

But MacIntyre has struggled since moving to the U.S. to try to compete regularly on the PGA Tour. He missed five cuts and had just one top-10 finish in his first 10 starts. As a result, he’s slipped to 84th in the world.

MacIntrye, 27, said earlier this week that he was homesick and missed his family and friends, so he went back to Scotland for three weeks and didn’t touch his club. When MacIntyre returned to the U.S., he paired up with Thomas Detry to tie for eighth in the Zurich Classic team event and tied for 13th in the Myrtle Beach Classic last week.

“Everyone knows I’ve been struggling with living in America since January,” MacIntyre said. “It’s been difficult. I went home there for three weeks. Spent a lot of time with friends and family and everyone that really matters to me, and I came back out wanting to play golf. If you’re wanting to play golf, you’re going to practice hard, you’re going to enjoy it.”

MacIntyre is enjoying himself this week — he’s tied for seventh at 12 under, 3 strokes behind the leaders.


Who outside the top 10 could still contend tomorrow?

Uggetti: Does Justin Thomas count? Technically, Thomas is tied for 10th but he is five shots back, which is actually two shots closer than he was when going into Sunday of the 2022 PGA Championship. At Southern Hills that year, Thomas shot 3-under and was able to get into a playoff that he won for his second career major.

It’s no secret that the two-time major winner has struggled since that win in 2022 and though he’s been adamant that a return to form is closer than it may appear, it hasn’t been until this week that the golf world has seen the proof that Thomas can still compete at a high level.

“This week has exceeded all my expectations,” Thomas said. “It’s been better. It’s been more fun. It’s been more enjoyable than anything I really thought or could have imagined. I’m very, very excited for tomorrow, and it should be a lot of fun.”

If Thomas wants a legitimate shot tomorrow, he’ll likely have to shoot far lower than 3-under given the way Valhalla is playing. Any kind of hometown advantage or familiarity with the golf course may come into play, but in the end, Thomas would have to put together one of the best rounds of his career to truly get into contention. Of those players who are five shots back or more, however, he could be the one to do it.

Schlabach: Is it the last guy who won a Wanamaker Trophy at Valhalla — Rory McIlroy in 2014? He’ll start the final round seven shots behind the leaders at 8 under. At one point Saturday, McIlroy was right there after making four straight birdies on Nos. 7-10.

But Rory made a couple of bogeys on the back nine and only one more birdie for a 3-under 68. The odds of him ending a nearly 10-year drought without a major championship victory are pretty long, but how many times have we seen him throw a low number on Sunday? His putter will have to get hot — he was only 2-for-9 on putts outside 10 feet in the third round.


Which player has the most at stake tomorrow?

Uggetti: There is an obvious name at the top of the leaderboard, but I’m going to zag here and go with Collin Morikawa.

Does he have two majors already? Yes. But after winning the 2020 PGA and the 2021 Open Championship, the golf world was ready to crown him the sport’s next star. Since then, Morikawa has had four top-10s at majors but also two missed cuts. He’s also notched only one PGA Tour win since 2021 at the 2023 Zozo Championship.

This year’s Masters was a low point for Morikawa, who was in the final group alongside Scottie Scheffler — just one stroke back — but shot a 74 to completely eject himself from contention.

“I felt sharp in everything, but I feel like I could have had a little bit of self-talk before I went out on that first tee and really just not got ahead of myself,” Morikawa said Saturday of his Masters Sunday performance. “Tomorrow I’m just going to put everything I have out there and see how it plays out.”

There’s no question Morikawa has the talent to keep winning majors and at 27 years old, he’ll likely continue to have more opportunities to do so. Adding a third major, however, would bolster his resume and position him back on track to be one of the sport’s best. When asked Saturday if he feels like he’s been forgotten, Morikawa said yes.

“I feel like people aren’t rooting for me out here,” Morikawa said. “They like a good story. Xander hasn’t won one, other guys, whatever it may be. But, you know, I could care less.”

Schlabach: Schauffele. He’s probably the most talented golfer in the world without a major championship victory, and he’s right there in contention again.

In 27 starts in majors, Schauffele has 25 top-20 finishes, 12 top 10s and six top fives. He finished eighth at the Masters. He’s been knocking on the door in the big four since 2017 and needs to kick it in on Sunday.

“It would mean a lot,” Schauffele said. “At the end of the day, it’s just a result. Winning a tournament is just a result. All I can focus on are good golf shots and striking good putts. At the end of the day, wherever the cards fall, they fall. Yeah, it would mean a lot, obviously.”

This is the ninth time that Schauffele has held the lead or co-lead after 54 holes. He went 2-for-8 in the past.

Schauffele knows he’s going to have to go low on Sunday with so many great players in striking distance. He followed up his 62 with back-to-back 68s. Those rounds were good but not spectacular.

“I mean, I said it yesterday, it’s funny, so there’s blood in the water,” Schauffele said. “Everyone kind of laughed, and then Shane Lowry almost shot 61 today. Yeah, I imagine someone in that threshold now that it’s been done twice is going to shoot something low and post a number early. I imagine that’s going to happen.”


Who is your winner?

Uggetti: Hear me out. Just a few months ago, we all thought Hovland was one of the best players in the world. He looked every bit the part and it felt like the sky was the limit. Did he make some regrettable decisions about his swing? It appears so. Has he now fixed them all? No, but his performance this week makes me believe that not too much has changed since he won the 2023 Tour Championship the way that he did.

What’s more: he has yet to truly get hot with his putter. On Saturday, Hovland missed several makeable birdie putts by mere inches. A couple of those drop and he’s suddenly leading this tournament too.

This week, Hovland is 51st in the field in feet of putts made and has only gained 2.96 strokes on the field with his putting (23rd). Maybe that performance holds and he’s not able to make a run tomorrow. But during a week when the greens are this soft and easy and everyone seems to think that whoever can make the most putts Sunday will win, there’s also a chance Hovland finds his groove on the greens.

“When there’s that many guys close to the leaderboard, you have to just be in the frame of mind that, okay, I’m going to have to roll some putts in,” Hovland said. “Obviously the winner of this tournament is going to make a couple of birdies [on harder holes] but that’s probably not going to come from stuffing a 5-iron in there. It’s going to come from rolling in a 25-footer … We’re still going to be patient and play smart, and hopefully we get a few putts going in early and kind of ride that momentum.”

Schlabach: Give me Morikawa. I’m not entirely sure I trust his putting, but he’s been there and done that in majors, winning the 2020 PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park and the 2021 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s in England. He believes he was two bad holes away from winning a green jacket at the Masters in April.

Morikawa’s putter is sometimes a liability, but it has been hot this week — he is 22nd in strokes gained: putting and tied for first around the green. That’s a short game that will stand the test of 18 more holes.

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