PGA Championship

At 105th PGA, it takes the right stuff to stick around the top

May 19, 2023


Jeff Babineau

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – For all its brawn, Oak Hill Country Club’s East Course is not a place that can be conquered simply with brute force. It takes an intelligent game plan, recognizing the right opportunities, and knowing when to pull back and be conservative.

Pars here are friendlier than plush satin-lined slippers. At the 105th PGA Championship, three players inched ahead at the championship’s midway point by being exceptional in the right areas. World No. 2 Scottie Scheffler played through mostly light but steady rains to shoot 2-under 68, joining Canadian Corey Conners (68) and Norway’s Viktor Hovland (67) at 5-under 135. Scheffler won the 2022 Masters; Conners and Hovland each are chasing their first major championships. 

If it felt like a grind for any of the three, not to mention the rest of a 156-man field, well, it was. Only nine players head into the weekend at Oak Hill below par. It was expected to be a stern test, and it has not disappointed. 

“I felt like I did a good job of grinding today,” said Scheffler, who held the lead until he failed to convert a difficult up-and-down at the par-4 18th hole. Through two rounds, he has gone 11-of-13 in scrambling. 

“I had some nice up-and-downs and kept the course in front of me for the most part. Didn't hit as many fairways as I would hope to (he hit six). Still, to shoot 2 under, especially on a day where the rough got really wet and it was really tough to play out of, to post a number today was good, solid golf.”

Good, solid golf has become a Scheffler specialty. He has won twice already this season, and the last time he finished out of the top 12 in a PGA Tour, there were autumn leaves on the ground. It was October.

Conners hails from Listowel, Ontario, not all that far across the border from where he is playing in upstate New York this week, and he has had plenty of support. He played nicely in his 68, which included three birdies against a lone bogey. Conners owns a pair of Valero Texas Open trophies, winning the second one in early April, the week before the Masters. He is a solid ball-striker who sometimes struggles with his putting. This week, the putter has been the best club in the bag. He ranks fifth in Strokes Gained: Putting after needing only 53 putts (26/27) through two rounds. 

“Very pleased with the score,” Conners said. “The conditions were tricky out there, faced some wind, some rain. Ended up being reasonably nice the last few holes, but game was solid. Felt like I made a bunch of key putts to keep momentum going, and that was really the key to the day.”

Conners is playing in his fifth PGA. He was the first-round leader at Kiawah Island two years ago, where he posted his best finish of T-17. 

Hovland stood out not only with his bright wardrobe (orange-striped shirt and orange pants) but with his play, too. At 25, he continues to grow as a player (he is 11th in the world), and continues to be a factor in the biggest tournaments. Friday marked the 10th consecutive round at the majors after which Hovland has resided in the top 10. He tied for seventh at the Masters, but still admits to making some mistakes of aggression that some seasoned players simply do not make. 

“The ball-striking is definitely there,” Hovland said after making four birdies and only one bogey. He pulled into a tie with a 5-footer for birdie at 18. “Putting, you know, anything can happen, and I feel like a lot of the short game work that I've been doing the last couple of months is starting to show a little bit. Some of the bunker shots that I hit today were really nice just to kind of keep the score together. 

“Yeah, I believe I have all the tools in the bag. I just have to go out there and execute.”

Rains started to fall in mid-afternoon at Oak Hill, softening the course some, but making it far harder to play from the rough. Scheffler, for instance, drove it just off-line along the left side of the 18th, got to his ball and didn’t have a whole lot of options other than taking a mighty strike to get the ball somewhere around the green. He left himself a difficult pitch and was unable to convert the mid-range par save, which is what he did one hole earlier to hold momentum.

Justin Suh, last year’s player of the year on the Korn Ferry Tour, continues to play the hard courses nicely, and his 2-under 68 pushed him into fourth alongside Bryson DeChambeau, the 2020 U.S. Open champion. Suh has made only two bogeys in 36 holes; DeChambeau followed his opening 66 with a round of 71, which included a double-bogey at the difficult par-4 sixth. 

The second-round scoring average at par-70 Oak Hill was 72.82. World No. 1 (and 2023 Masters champion) Jon Rahm, who had struggled mightily on Thursday (76), rallied to make the cut with a 68 that left him in a tie for 48th. Likewise, Rory McIlroy, who was 3 over par early on Thursday, rallied with a 69. At 1-over 141, he climbed all the way into a tie for 10th. He said he was shocked to birdie 18 and see he was only five (now six) shots behind the leaders. He said that if he can drive the ball better, he could get into the weekend mix. 

“I stayed really patient today,” said McIlroy, who won his last major in 2014. “I think my patience was rewarded with a couple of good breaks and a couple of birdies coming in.” 

The 36-hole cut fell at 5-over 145. Making it on the number were defending champion Justin Thomas (73), U.S. Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson (71) and Jordan Spieth, who made a 10-foot par save on his final hole to get in at 72. Among those playing on the weekend will be Club Professional Michael Block (Mission Viejo, California), who shot 70 and was one of the brightest stars of the day. He enters the weekend tied for 10th.