Tiger Woods, New York crowds and underdog winners: Why it's time to get excited about the USPGA Championship

Daniel Zeqiri
Tiger Woods will be the centre of attention again at the USPGA Championship - REX

Once billed as 'glory's last shot' due its end-of-season place in the schedule, the USPGA Championship has had a makeover and returns this week at Bethpage Black in its new May slot

Lacking the mystique of the Masters, brutality of the US Open or quirkiness of the Open Championship, the USPGA has been regarded as golf's most bland and faceless major championship. 

The venues and course set-ups can be quite similar to regular PGA Tour events, not helped by the feeling that the golf season is winding down in August. There was also a Ryder Cup looming beyond it every two years.

However, the switch to May could breathe new life into the tournament and fills what was once a two-month wait between the season's first and second major. 

Here are just some of the reasons not to be underwhelmed by golf's 'fourth' major. 

Tiger-mania could reach new levels of fervour  

Where else to start? It seemed Tiger Woods was consigned to the history books. Now he is re-writing them and reviving his lifelong quest to better Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships. 

Number 15 was secured at an unforgettable Masters in April, and the Tiger fans who nibbled on the 1,000/1 about him winning all four majors in 2019 will be feeling justifiably giddy. 

Woods returns to the scene of his 2002 US Open victory at Bethpage, and the examination of patience and strategy posed in the majors seems to bring out the best in him rather than the week-to-week birdie-fests on Tour. Prior to winning the Masters, Woods finished second and T6 at the previous two majors so he knows how to navigate the season's stiffer tests. 

Tiger Woods won the 2002 US Open at Bethpage Black and looked on course for the Grand Slam Credit: Getty Images

A note of caution, however. Much has been made of Woods winning the US Open at this week's course, but the relevance of a tournament 17 years ago when Woods was the longest-hitter in the field is questionable. Woods can still move the ball out there, but that power advantage has gone on a Bethpage layout likely to play long and soft.

He has also not played competitively since Augusta. Age and injury has forced Woods to scale back his volume of practice and preparation at home, meaning he has to play his way through the rust. Woods finished a modest T20 in his first start of the season at Torrey Pines, and 17th of 18 at the end-of-year Hero World Challenge after a 10-week break. How his body reacts to the cooler weather in New York is also a concern - anyone who has suffered with a stiff back knows it's best to feel some sun on it. Woods looked quite ginger at October's chilly Ryder Cup in Paris, and he has an early tee time on day one. 

Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka make up the tournament's 'big four'. Koepka does not take a backward step when he sniffs contention at majors, a wet course should be right up McIlroy's alley ditto Johnson who is also prolific on Poa annua greens which are in play this week. 

Bethpage is an American classic

USPGA venues can be identikit resort courses, but Bethpage Black is an A.W Tillinghast masterpiece that has hosted two US Opens. 

There are five courses at Bethpage State Park, and at 1,477 acres the scale of the place is something to behold with wide open expanses of lush turf. 

The Black course is a handsome brute, stretching to more than 7,400 yards and ranked as the sixth toughest course in the US according to Golf Digest's rankings. A feature of the course is the number of fairways that run across the player rather than straight ahead, forcing carries over long rough and deep fairway bunkers. That is one reason why longer drivers - who can cut off more of these corners and take more aggressive lines - are fancied to contend. 

Bethpage Black is a classic parkland course in Long Island, New York Credit: Getty Images

A number of greens are elevated above the player and feature a lot of pitch from back to front. These elevated greens are surrounded by rough in front, so there is no chance of running the ball onto the surfaces. Players who drive the ball in the rough will be chopping out and wedging in, there is little scope for heroic recovery shots. 

Possibly the most famous feature of the course is the sign on the first tee. It reads: "The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend for highly skilled golfers."

It plays as a par-71 for the members with three par-fives, but at the PGA it will be a stringent Par 70. The seventh will play as a 524-yard par four. 

New York crowds and municipality 

If Augusta's genteel atmosphere, pedantic rules and 'exclusivity' (a dubious euphemism given the South's history) make you a tad uncomfortable, things will feel far more democratised at Bethpage. 

Known as the 'People's Country Club', all five courses on the complex are open to the public. The Black course is the most expensive at $130 on weekdays for visitors, but is available to all those patient enough to wait for their tee time. Golf tourists have been known to sleep in their car at the course in order to nab one of the few morning tee times allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. It's just over an hour from Manhattan's Penn Station by train. 

The USPGA Championship is being held at one of America's finest public courses Credit: USA TODAY

New York crowds are infamously boisterous and unforgiving, and will be taking full advantage of the on-course hospitality. By the time the leaders reach the back nine this weekend at late afternoon, things could get very raucous. Trying to win a major is hard enough, but doing so with a few thousand Bud Light-fuelled New Yorkers on your back is an additional challenge. Especially if you're up against an American. 

The USPGA is the deepest field in golf

Prior to Justin Thomas' withdrawal through injury, the world's top 100 golfers were due to tee it up in New York. Other majors offer greater charm, but the golfer who holds the Wanamaker Trophy aloft on Sunday can boast of beating the strongest field in the sport. Which brings us to...

The USPGA's history of unlikely winners

Course knowledge is all at Augusta, the patience required at a US Open sometimes suits an older head and adapting to links golf can take a few tries. The USPGA by contrast, is the major most like a regular tour event which might explain why it's so many players' first major. Keegan Bradley, Martin Kaymer, Jason Day, Jason Dufner, Jimmy Walker and Justin Thomas were all first-time major champions at USPGAs since 2010. 

With that in mind, it is worth considering those knocking on the door for a first major title. Rickie Fowler has had eight top-fives in the majors without success, and it is difficult to find fault in his all-round game. Jon Rahm will surely win one eventually, but there are doubts about his temperament and tendency to blow his top.

Shaun Micheel hit an 8-iron close at the last to win the 2003 USPGA Championship Credit: Getty Images

Xander Schauffele has finishes of T2-T35-T2-T6 in his last four majors, with a masterful short-game and steely nerve. Patrick Cantlay plays well on traditional tracks and is a star in waiting after injury problems. Tommy Fleetwood, Matt Kuchar and Hideki Matsuyama will surely breakthrough soon. 

Further down the field, there is hope for the rank outsiders. Rich Beem and Shaun Micheel were two unlikely USPGA Champions in 2001 and 2003, while Bradley and Walker also came home at three-figure prices. In 2009, Y.E Yang became Asia's first major champion at the USPGA at Hazeltine and the first player to reel in Woods at a major when he had a 54-hole lead. 

Bethpage is a tee to green test, so pay attention to the players whose putting often holds them back. One player in this mould who is well-fancied is American Jason Kokrak. Sergo Garcia has a fine Bethpage record - proof that an unreliable putter can thrive.