HARTFORD, Conn. – Four players with Connecticut ties from the Metropolitan (N.Y.) Section PGA will be among the 156 players in the pandemic-delayed PGA Championship that starts Thursday at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco.
Leading the way is frequent Connecticut Open challenger Danny Balin, the head pro at Fresh Meadow Country Club in Lake Success on Long Island. He finished third in the 2019 PGA of America’s Player of Year standings that were used to determine the 20 club pro entries in the year’s first major championship after the PGA Professional Championship, scheduled for July 19-22 in Austin, Texas, was canceled due to COVID-19. It will be Balin’s seventh PGA Championship appearance.
Other local entries include 2012 Connecticut Open champion and Cape Cod native Jason Caron, the head pro at the Mill River Club in Oyster Bay, N.Y., who played on the Nationwide Tour; Alex Beach of Stamford and Westchester CC in Rye, N.Y., who became the first player in history to win multiple PGA of America national championships in the same calendar year when he captured the PGA Professional Championship and Assistant PGA Professional Championship in 2019; and Central Connecticut State University grad Rob Labritz, the director of golf at GlenArbor GC in Bedford Hills, N.Y., who will play in his seventh PGA Championship after being the only club pro to make the cut in 2019, finishing in a tie for 60th and earning the Crystal Ball as the low club pro at Bethpage Black in Southampton, N.Y. He also was the only club pro to make the cut in the 2010 PGA Championship, finishing in a tie for 68th with Stuart Appleby.
Balin and the aforementioned trio have played in 15 PGA Championships. Balin, Ryan Vermeer of Omaha, Neb., and Marty Jertson of Phoenix, Ariz., are assured of spots in the U.S. Open on Sept. 17-20 at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., after being granted exemptions by the U.S. Golf Association for finishing in the top three in the 2019 Professional POY standings. The PGA Championship was originally scheduled to be played in May and the U.S. Open in June.
Rich Berberian Jr. of Hooksett, N.H., will play in his fifth consecutive PGA Championship, the longest active streak among PGA club professionals.
Brooks Koepka, who has struggled much of the year because of an ailing knee, will shoot for a third consecutive PGA Championship title after holding off four-time winner Tiger Woods last year. Woods will make only his second PGA Tour start since February, having tied for 40th in the Memorial Tournament two weeks ago. He’s an 18-to-1 favorite behind Rory McIlroy (8-1), Bryson DeChambeau (10-1), Jon Rahm (11-1), Justin Thomas (12-1) and Travelers Championship winner Dustin Johnson (12-1). Woods again will try to notch his 83rd career victory to break a tie with Sam Snead.
Thomas shot a 5-under-par 65 Sunday to rally to become the first three-time winner this season in the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational at TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tenn. Thomas had a 72-hole total of 13-under 267 for a three-stroke victory over defending champion Kopeka (69), two-time Canon Greater Hartford Open winner Phil Mickelson (67), 2017 Travelers Championship runner-up Daniel Berger (65) and Tom Lewis (66).
After making a 39-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole, Koepka was only a stroke back but hit his drive into the water and made a double-bogey 6 at No. 18, helping Thomas move to No. 1 in the world rankings for the second time (first since June 3, 2018) and widen his lead in the FedExCup standings to 713 points with two weeks remaining in the regular season. The only other players with a mathematical chance to win the Wyndham Rewards Top 10 are DeChambeau, Webb Simpson and Sungjae Im.
The 27-year-old Thomas wore shoes with colored designs made by a St. Jude Hospital youngster and became the third-youngest player to win 13 times on the PGA Tour behind Woods and Jack Nicklaus. He notched his second WGC-St. Jude win with fill-in caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay, who carried for Mickelson for 25 years, winning 42 titles that included five majors, before they parted ways in June 2017. Mackay became an on-course roving reporter for The Golf Channel and caddied occasionally, and he was in the same group with Mickelson for the first time since they split and will work for Thomas again in the PGA Championship.
“It was a hard-fought day, but it meant a lot I just felt like [because of] how we did it, being four behind to start the day,” Thomas said. “I haven’t exactly played well coming from behind in the past, and I feel like I learned a lot from that. Especially at Colonial (Charles Schwab Challenge), I just didn’t handle it well and I pressed way too hard and I definitely learned a lot from Workday and Columbus (Memorial), just how I handled that lead and that situation the last couple holes I did obviously a very poor job (losing three-stroke lead with three holes to go). But because of that, I felt a lot more calm and stayed more in the moment today.”
It certainly helped having a caddie as experienced as Mackay with him.
“He did great,” Thomas said. “He did what a lot of great caddies do and they let the player do it. There’s a reason why they’re the best, and he did an unbelievable job this week, especially for being in that situation, which we had never been in that together.”
Mackay won’t start announcing again until the FedExCup playoffs begin on Aug. 20 with THE NORTHERN TRUST at TPC Boston in Norton, Mass. He came out of retirement as a caddie last month when Englishman Matthew Fitzpatrick’s regular caddie decided not to travel to the U.S. because of the pandemic. Mackay worked back-to-back tournaments at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio. Thomas’ longtime caddie, Jimmy Johnson, fell ill during the third round of the Memorial, when Thomas’ dad and swing coach, Mike, was in the gallery and took over his bag. Johnson, who has been working with Thomas since 2015, was expected back in Memphis but was still feeling dizzy, so Thomas called Mackay for help.
Brendon Todd, who also was seeking a third victory this season and led after three rounds as he did in the Travelers Championship, struggled to a birdie-free 75 for 273 and a tie for 15th. He had a final-round, 5-over 75 and tied for 11th at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell on June 28.