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'Toughest Test These Guys Have Faced So Far,' Says Dottie Pepper On PGA Championship At TPC Harding Park

(CBS San Francisco) -- Going into the PGA Championship, it's already been a long, strange season on the PGA Tour. And in some sense, it's also only just beginning.

PGA Tour Season So Far

The 2019-2020 schedule kicked off innocuously enough with A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier back in September and rolled through its fall and winter events without much out of the ordinary. Then COVID-19 hit, stopping the Players Championship after one round. The PGA Tour, like most sports and much of the country in general was forced into an extended break.

Three months and multiple cancellations and postponements later, the Tour picked up again with a revised calendar. The Open Championship opted to take the year off. The Masters was moved to November, and the U.S. Open to mid-September. Both shifted to the 2020-2021 schedule. The PGA Championship moved to early August, becoming the current season's only major.

In the weeks since the restart, major-level fields have played without fans on site to watch. The number-one ranking has changed hands twice. Rory McIlroy gave it to Jon Rahm, who passed it along to Justin Thomas this week. Bryson DeChambeau has excelled thanks to his added size and distance off the tee. But some of the world's top-10 golfers, not to mention Tiger Woods, have failed to regain some continuity.

>>STREAM: PGA Championship

PGA Tour Calendar Going Forward

But the calendar can be viewed looking forward as well. "We're about to enter the greatest stretch of golf in the history of the game," according to CBS Sports golf anchor Jim Nantz. "Starting on Thursday, in an 11-month stretch, we're going to have seven major championships. We're going to have the (FedExCup) Playoffs. That includes two Masters, two PGA Championships... the Players Championship."

"This is a tremendous time for the game," says Nantz. "And what a time it is for the premiere players. If their game is in a good place... You could see somebody take two, three, who knows, maybe four of these seven majors."

This week is the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park. The event will once again feature most of the world's top players inside the ropes, but no fans outside the ropes.

>>READ: Amanda Balionis On 2020 PGA Championship At TPC Harding Park: 'The Ball Is Not Going To Go As Far As We're Used To Seeing The Last Six Weeks'

PGA Championship Field

The entire top 10 is set to tee off, along with approximately 90 of the world's top 100 players. Thomas hopes to continue his momentum after winning the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational and returning to number one for the first time since 2018. McIlroy, now third but only weeks removed from the top ranking, has won the event twice. Brooks Koepka, ranked sixth, will be seeking a historic third consecutive PGA Championship. The ninth-ranked Adam Scott will see his first action since the canceled Players Championship

The field also includes every champion from the last decade and a few from the previous decade, such as Tiger Woods (1999, 2000, 2006, 2007) and Phil Mickelson (2005). Padraig Harrington (2008) and Vijay Singh (1998, 2004) have both withdrawn.

With a stacked field, there will be no shortage of storylines playing out at Harding Park. All of the world's top-10 players will enter the favorites conversation at some point. But the play of many of them since golf's return raises questions. McIlroy hasn't seen the top 10 since before the break. Dustin Johnson won the Travelers Championship, but he's also missed two cuts and withdrawn from the 3M Open. Koepka had looked uninspired before his tie for second at last week's WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. Only Thomas, whose win over Koepka elevated him to number one, has shown any sort of consistency.

Woods will play in his second event since the Tour's return. The first was a tie for 40th at the Memorial Tournament two weeks ago. He's won the PGA Championship four times, though the last time was 13 years ago. His second-place finish in 2018 at Bellerive is his best in recent years. He also has some competitive experience on this course, including a win at the WGC-American Express Championship in 2005 and a strong performance at the Presidents Cup in 2009. An uneven game in limited action of late makes it unlikely he'll be that competitive this year.

Jordan Spieth will get another chance at a career grand slam. Now ranked 62nd in the world and a few years removed from his last Tour win of any kind, the historic milestone still seems out of reach. (He would be just the sixth player ever.) A tie for 10th at the Charles Schwab Classic is his best showing over the last two months.

>>READ: TPC Harding Park Profile: Municipal Gem Hosts The PGA Championship

TPC Harding Park

A winner from outside the top 10 and beyond a handful of household names would not be all that surprising. That TPC Harding Park isn't a regular stop on the PGA Tour makes it a little more likely. This "gem of San Francisco," as CBS sports director Dennis O'Donnell describes it, is "... a shot-making course, not a boomers course. It's going to be a course of strategy, not wail away from 400 yards..."

The course will be a par-70 for the event, stretching to 7,234 yards. Cypress trees line the fairways, which will play firm and have been narrowed significantly. The trees may induce conservative play given their propensity to disappear golf balls. The heavy sea air and cooler temperatures will also keep balls from flying as far as they might otherwise. The greens, refurbished with bentgrass in 2014, tend to be large and relatively flat, but should play fast. And then there's the weather, with wind and fog always a potential factor.

"This is going to be the toughest test these guys have faced so far," says CBS Sports on-course reporter Dottie Pepper, who had sneak peak yesterday. "It is mean. It is wet. The rough is extremely long. The greens are firm. The wind did come up a little bit. The thing the players were talking about most... was A) the rough, and B) how wet that rough is right now and C) the difference in temperature. This has been a really hot eight weeks we've covered leading into this. And there's a 30 or 40-degree drop in temperature they were experiencing this morning. And everyone was talking a lot about that. When that happens, golf balls are not flying as far. You've got a golf course that's set up extremely difficult. And it's just going to be a huge test."

>>READ: PGA Championship: A Hole-By-Hole Look At TPC Harding Park

PGA Championship Favorites

Here are the favorites for the PGA Championship:

Justin Thomas (10-1)

Thomas has probably been the most consistent player since the PGA Tour's return. His win at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational elevated him to the top of the rankings. But he also has multiple top-10 finishes since the return, including a playoff loss at the Workday Charity Open. never mind his 2017 PGA Championship. If Thomas's putter is humming, he will be hard to beat.

Brooks Koepka (10-1)

Koepka seemed to turn things around a couple weeks ago and has since appeared much more dialed in. He's coming off a runner-up finish behind Thomas at the St. Jude and always tends to punch it up a notch for the majors. As defending champion twice over, Koepka could become the first player since the 1920s to three-peat at the PGA Championship.

Bryson DeChambeau (11-1)

DeChambeau has never cracked the top 10 at a major, but that seems like a real possibility this week. With his bulked-up frame, he's added some distance to his drives. Harding Park has some driveable par-4s, which could present the aggressive DeChambeau with scoring opportunities. But danger also awaits, as angles matter on this course too.

Watch the PGA Championship, Saturday, August 8, 4:00 - 10:00 p.m. ET and Sunday, August 9, 3:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET on CBS.

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