Tuesday, August 10, 2010

12 players to beat at the PGA Championship

Who will win the final major championship on the men's tour this year? Will it be someone with a history of winning majors, like Phil Mickelson, who added to his trophy case by taking the Masters in April? Or will it be a third straight first-timer, following U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland and British Open champ Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa?

Experience counts for something, but probably not as much as you'd think. Newcomers winning a major is almost a 50-50 proposition. Every year since 2001, at least one of the majors has been won by a golfer who had not won a major before.

In 2003, all four majors were won by first-timers: Canadian Mike Weir at the Masters and Americans Jim Furyk at the U.S. Open, Ben Curtis at the British Open and Shaun Micheel at the PGA. By the way, none of those four has won a major since then. Likewise for other 21st century major champs David Duval (2001 British), David Toms (2001 PGA), Rich Beem (2002 PGA), Todd Hamilton (2004 British), Michael Campbell (2005 U.S. Open), Geoff Ogilvy (2006 U.S. Open), Zach Johnson (2007 Masters), Trevor Immelman (2008 Masters), Lucas Glover (2009 U.S. Open), Stewart Cink (2009 British) and Y.E. Yang (2009 PGA).

Since 1991, roughly half (40 of 79) of the majors were won by first-timers. Thirty of those 40 winners have won no other major.

So the key to predicting a winner seems to be picking the right mix of players who have been to the winner's circle before, players on the cusp of greatness and players likely to catch lightning in a bottle.

With that in mind, I am approaching the PGA Championship, which starts Thursday at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., with four players from each of these three categories.

The multiple-major winners: Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Padraig Harrington.

The up-and-comers: Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Lucas Glover, Ryo Ishikawa.

The one-timers: Dustin Johnson, Martin Kaymer, Sean O'Hair, Steve Stricker.

Mickelson, who didn't win his first major until 2004 (his 13th year on tour,, when he was almost 34), seems to be making up for lost time. A win this week would be the 40-year-old Lefty's fifth major title in seven years. Els, also 40, hasn't won a major since the 2002 British Open, but he's playing some of the most inspired golf of his career this year, and he tied for fourth in the 2004 PGA when it was last held at Whistling Straits.

Goosen, 41, a two-time U.S. Open champion, has 12 top-10 finishes in majors this decade, and a win this week would not be a major surprise. Harrington, who will be 39 on Aug. 31, is seeking his fourth major title in the past three years, and he's the only player in the past 12 years other than Tiger Woods to win more than one major in a single year.

Among the up-and-comers, Glover barely fits. For one, he's 30, nine years older than McIlroy and Fowler, 12 years older than Ishikawa. Also, he's already won a major, last year's U.S. Open when everyone else seemed to find ways to lose. But I'm not sure he's done winning majors; he has a great temperament and enough game to pull off another.

McIlroy, currently ranked No. 8 in the world, could be either the next Tiger Woods, and win a bunch of majors, or the next Sergio Garcia, all promise and no major victories. I'd like to believe he's going to win at least one major, and probably several. The only problem is, it seems that every year the talent pool gets so deep that it's harder and harder to stand out.

Fowler is a bit of a wild card here. He's only been a pro a short time, has no tour wins and the PGA is just his fourth major championship appearance. But he also has the ability to put up low numbers, and I like his approach to the game ... fearless.

Ishikawa is a prodigy, pure and simple. He won't turn 19 until September, and he won on the Japan tour before his 16th birthday. He's already got eight pro wins, seven on the Japan tour, and shot a 58, lower than anyone has ever gone on the PGA Tour, in winning a Japan tour event in May.

The one-timer label is kind of a backhanded compliment, guys I believe good enough to win a major, but not two. When he grabbed the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open in June at Pebble Beach, I thought Dustin Johnson might be one of those up-and-comers, but he blew his chances in a big way on the second and third holes of the final round. At the second hole, the right-handed Johnson ridiculously tried to hit a recovery shot left-handed and nearly whiffed; at the third hole, he hit his tee shot so badly the ball was lost in a grove of trees as he and a couple hundred spectators couldn't locate the ball.

Now, I think Johnson may be in the one-timer class. He's still an impressive player, with the length to tackle any course (Tiger says Johnson is "stupid long" off the tee). John Daly was once known for being mostly a bomber, but even he won two majors, so I think Johnson is good for one. Whether it's this week or not is speculation.

Stricker, meanwhile, would be fortunate to qualify for the one-timer category. He's a veteran, has 17 pro wins, nine top-10 finishes in majors and currently is ranked No. 4 in the world, behind Woods, Mickelson and Lee Westwood. Also, he might be a crowd favorite this week since he grew up in Edgerton, Wis., 130 miles away from Kohler where the PGA will be contested. That's the upside. The downside is that he's never won a major, and he's 43. Tom Kite won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 1992 at 42, and Julius Boros was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA, but Stricker's opportunities may be running out.

Kaymer, 25, grew up in Dusseldorf, Germany, mostly plays the European Tour and is little known in the U.S. However, he's finished in the top 10 in three of the past four majors and has exceptional talent. He won a pro tournament as a 19-year-old amateur and once shot a 58 in another event, playing the final 16 holes 14 under par.

O'Hair, 28, could also be considered a darkhorse. He has just three PGA Tour wins, but one came in 2005 when he was named the tour's rookie of the year. That's an encouraging sign, though, since eight of the past 19 rookies of the year have won majors.

That's my dozen picks for the PGA this week. Will one of them win? Who knows, but the process of selecting them has been an exquisite challenge.

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