The professional golf tour’s final “major” championship of the year, the PGA Championship, begins Thursday. I ahd hoped to find time to write a lengthier preview than this. In sum, though, golf fans should be anticipating this PGA with particular interest. For several years advertisements sold the PGA as “Glory’s Last Shot,” and the appellation really does apply this year.
Two big questions usually garner interest before the PGA, and both are especially pressing this year.
First, which player from the contenders for “Best Player Never to Have Won a Major (BPNTHWAH)” (if any) will finally earn his way out of that discussion, and get the proverbial monkey off his back, by actually winning his first major?
Second, who will stake an unimpeachable claim as the PGA Tour’s player of the year?
As for the first, most years see at least one person earn his way off the list. Last year it was Adam Scott. The year before, Bubba Watson hadn’t really earned his way ON to the list yet, but he was at least entering the discussion for the related list of “Who Has So Much Talent That He’s BOUND To Win a Major, Doesn’t He?” The year earlier was Darren Clarke. Indeed, going all the way backwrds through 1981, the only year in which at least one major winner was NOT a first-timer (of some sort, whether from the BPNTHWAH list or not) was the year 2000. Granted, sometimes the first-time winner is a virtual one-hit wonder, like Shaun Micheel or Rich Beem or Y.E. Yang. But almost every year, SOMEbody emerges from BPNTHWAH status.
This year, though, all three majors so far have featured repeat major winners. The monkey-on-back factor hasn’t had its pressure-valve released yet this year. (Sorry to so badly mix and mangle metaphors.) So, here’s watching Sergio Garcia (hot as an active pancake griddle right now, and more overdue, after 15 years of near-misses, than almost any golfer in history) — pretty please with sugar on top. And if Garcia doesn’t send the right message, there’s the long-suffering Lee Westwood, with his record for most major top-3s without a victory, in the history of golf. Not really in that category of oh-so-many oh-so-closes, but still well in the discussion, are Matt Kuchar, K.J. Choi, Brandt Snedeker, Steve Stricker, Ian Poulter, and senior tour star Kenny Perry playing in his home state of Kentucky on the course where he qualified for a playoff in the 1996 PGA before losing.
Similarly, the debate about the player of the year is unusually up in the air this year. Nobody has yet wrapped up the title — and, because of the new (and really dumb) definition of the golf season as running from October of one year through September of the next (rather than the calendar year of January through December), the PGA comes much closer to the end of the season, meaning there is less time afterwards for a player to burnish his credentials. The obvious contenders are Rory McIlRoy (winner of the British Open and a World Golf Championship event), Bubba Watson (winner of the Masters and at historic Riviera in L.A., plus two seconds and a third, but recently playing indifferently), and Martin Kaymer (the odds-on favorite just a month ago after winning both the U.S. Open overwhelmingly and the Players Championship, but entirely unimpressive since). If any of those three win this week, they’ll end the discussion and win by acclaim. But several others could easily make it a four-way discussion by winning the PGA on top of already significant earlier successes: three-time winner (of “regular” tournaments) Jimmy Walker, two-time winner Patrick Reed, and one-time winners (when combined with lots of impressively high finishes) Kuchar, Scott. Justin Rose, Zach Johnson, and Jason Day. And even Garcia, despite no victories yet in the U.S. this year, could enter the discussion if he wins at Valhalla, considering his second at the British Open, his second last week at Firestone, his second at the Travelers, two thirds (including at the Players), and a fourth.
Other subplots include last-stretch jockeying for Ryder Cup points, the bizarro world of a full year without a victory by either Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, the four-year string of can’t-quite-finish excellence of Jim Furyk, and even the reappearance at a major of perennially heartbroken Colin Montgomerie, suddenly a winner of not one but two majors on the senior circuit, whose recent form is so good that he might, just conceivably, contend again at age 51.
Meanwhile, youngsters not old enough to have attained BPNTHWAH status, but whose potential is tantalizingly enormous, include Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth, and Hideki Matsuyama.
This is good stuff, at a course that while not “classic” is nonetheless well designed (by Jack Nicklaus) for tremendous drama. It’s a fun course for the TV viewer to watch, and it produced riveting playoffs each of the two other times it hosted the PGA.
So who will win? Well, I’m officially out of the golf prediction business after embarrassments (don’t ask) at both the Masters and U.S. Open this year. The long string of predictive success that began for me with my amazingly accurate prediction of Hubert Green’s U.S. Open win in 1977 is now a long-gone memory.
But let me say this: I’d like to see Sergio finally start to fulfill his potential. And the easiest pick is Rory McIlroy. Ho, hum.
Yet, considering how jumbled this golf year has been so far, the most unlikely result of all might just be the one that until a few years ago would have been the most expected. I don’t want to see this, but if a guy with a messed up knee and fractured leg could win the U.S. Open in 2008, the same guy with almost putrid results throughout 2014, combined with March back surgery and renewed back spasms last week, might just do something goofy again this year — like winning at Valhalla. Never, ever bet against Tiger burning bright.