Editor’s note: This is part three of a four part series previewing the 2015 PGA Championship by Matt Craig and Torey Fox. Torey will be on-site at Whistling Straights for the week and Matt as always will be glued to his TV.
Day 3: Let’s Find a Champion
We’ve already looked at why this is the most important major since 1996, and then why you should control your urge to dub every major champion a “phenom.” But let’s be honest, all anyone really wants to know is, “who the heck is going to win this thing?” Golf is so much different than any other sport because there are legitimately 30 or 40 golfers who have a really good chance to win any given tournament, given that the margin for error between them is so small. Over the four days, playing the same seventy-two holes as their competition, rarely does more than one stroke decide who wins or loses. And in a sport where being a “major champion” is all that really matters, every stroke counts.
Whistling Straights is one of my favorite golf courses on the planet, as it is both beautiful and challenging. At this point in the week, rain and heavy winds make this week’s tournament look even more difficult. But who doesn’t love to watch the best golfers in the world struggle? The best part about Whistling Straights to me is that it separates the great players from the good players. The final leaderboard of the 2010 PGA Championship played at the Straights is a who’s who in golf.
I’m not going to lie, I’m somewhat of a prediction wizard. My major championship picks this year have been Jordan Spieth, Jordan Spieth and Louis Oosthuizen. That’s two wins and one loss in a playoff. So yeah, feel free to take out your life savings from the bank and bet on my pick for this PGA Championship. Just know that according to Vegas odds no one in the field has better than a six-to-one chance to win this thing.
Without further ado, let’s meet the contenders:
(the further down the list, the better chance I am giving the player to win)
The Hometown Hero
Steve Stricker is a Wisconsin native and a huge supporter of Wisconsin athletics. When I was in Indianapolis working the Final Four in March, I saw Stricker there with his family decked out in Badgers gear. And the state loves him right back, so I expect huge crowds and cheers following him all week. He is also probably the nicest guy on the PGA Tour and everyone loves him. That being said, his emphasis at this stage in his career is less on golf and more on his family, which while admirable, means that his days of contending at major championships are over with. That shouldn’t stop you from rooting for Strick while you’re watching!
GERMAN ENGINEERING YA. Martin Kaymer won the PGA Championship the last time it was held at Whistling Straights, which gives him enough merit to be on this list. He also won the US Open and PLAYERS Championship last year in tough conditions, and has the ability to be automatic hitting fairways and greens. But his game is not in good shape right now, and unless he catching lightning in a bottle I doubt he will even contend this week.
“The Closer” is a nickname that fellow golf writer Torey Fox shared with me, and I love it. The last ten times that Jim Furyk has held a lead after 54 holes, he hasn’t won the tournament. After playing great last week in Akron, Furyk is at the top of his game and would be a contender to win this tournament if it was anyone other than Jim Furyk. I think the “ghosts of beautiful golf swings past” are haunting Jimbo. The first 2/3 of his golf swing looks like your uncle who plays golf twice and year and throws back one too many cold ones, then Furyk somehow snaps his wrists into perfect place for the last 1/3 and smacks it down the middle. He could contend but I’d say his chance of winning is minimal.
The Greatest of All Time
I’ve already said my piece on Tiger in my Day 1 article. When his game is on, he is still talented enough to beat anyone. But he’s not consistent enough to win golf tournaments at this point. I would love to see him contend because it would raise the hype level through the roof, but I don’t see it happening. Whistling Straights requires no mental lapses or errors, and a really strong mental toughness. Those aren’t exactly Tiger’s strengths anymore. Hope he surprises me but don’t expect him to be in the conversation on Sunday.
The Champion Golfer of the Year
Zach Johnson currently holds the best title in the golf world. After claiming the claret jug at St. Andrews, ZJ had a little bit of a major championship hangover at the WGC Bridgestone last week. But that’s somewhat expected, and Johnson’s great finish in 2010 (one stroke out of the playoff) has a lot of people thinking that he is going to win it this year. But I disagree. First and foremost Whistling Straights is an extremely long golf course, and favors the long hitters. In addition, the forecast is showing rain throughout the week, which means the course is going to be wet and soft, which limits the rollout on drives and causes the course to play even longer.
I watched his press conference today and there were two comments that really stuck out to me: 1) how much he loves links golf and relishes the challenges that it brings, yet doesn’t see this course as a links course at all, it’s all aerial (which doesn’t suit his game) and 2) when asked if you have to like a golf course to win on it he said that he didn’t particularly like this course (this quote ends with “…and yet still felt like he could win on it” but isn’t it more exciting if I leave that part out?).
The Dude You Probably Want to Hang Out With
Everybody LOVES Rickie Fowler. He is a social media phenomenon, is followed around the course by a horde of little kids in orange outfits asking for autographs, and thanks to the fact that he discovered what a barber was, he is now one of the heartthrobs of the PGA Tour. He is also a favorite of the television media, who has thrown him into the same discussion with Rory and Spieth as bannermen of the next generation even though Rickie has never won a major. He seems more ready than he has every been after finishing top five in every major last year and winning the PLAYERS and Scottish Opens this year. But for me, the biggest determining factor on how someone is going to perform is their “form” coming into the event.
Form is a term used in soccer most frequently, but it applies to every sport. Basically no matter how good or bad a player is their performances is a roller coaster of good play and bad play. As a player starts to play better and better, he builds confidence and gets into great form. Then a few errant shots lead to doubt which leads to tinkering which sends a player back down. So while Fowler looked great at the PLAYERS, that event was in May and his form has changed several times since then.
In addition, the course does not suit Fowler. He barely made the cut in 2010, and is only T71 in ball striking, which I think is the most important stat this week. I’m sorry Pretty Rickie, I do think you are going to win a major, but it’s just not this week.
The Boy Wonder
According to the Las Vegas betting odds, Jordan Spieth is the favorite to win the PGA Championship at 6-1. But I think that the ship has sailed a little too early on Spieth. As the biggest Spieth fan I know, I’ve been following his game since 2013, and to be honest I’m amazed at the success he’s had in the last 9 months or so. Sure he’s a great putter, but nothing else in his game really jumps out at you as being incredible. He’s a really talented player, and good enough to contend and compete in any field, but his raw talent is not nearly that of Rory or Dustin Johnson or many others. He’s not very long off the tee or very accurate, and he’s only 55th in greens in regulation.
But then again that’s exactly why Spieth is a star, and one the likes of which we’ve never seen before. It’s just intangibles. We try to break golf down into so many different factors and variables, but in the end it’s about putting the ball in the hole in as few strokes as possible. This is where Spieth excels, he just grinds and never lets strokes get away from him. If he makes a bogey, you can almost put money on him making a birdie on the next hole. He’s a mental giant and that’s why I think he’ll win a ton of majors.
But again, not his week. This course doesn’t set up for him, because he can be errant off the tee. All it takes is one tee ball into a bunker, and the score can stack up quickly. Also Whistling Straights seems like a course with a lot of nuances, so his lack of experience around the course seems like a disadvantage. Verdict: never bet against Spieth, and I fully expect him to be in the conversation, but I don’t see him winning this week.
The Dude You Probably Want to Party With
Dustin Johnson is one more major heartbreak away from returning to the cocaine and hard drinking that (allegedly) kept him out of the game for the second half of last season. The last time the PGA was at Whistling Straights, DJ had the tournament won only to learn that a (very shady) rule infraction had cost him a 2 stroke penalty and his chance at a major.
To me, DJ is the second most talented player on the planet behind a man we are going to talk about next. He is the longest hitter on tour (he averages 319 off the tee and hit one 406 last week), and when he’s on can absolutely tear up a golf course. The problems are what they’ve always been, that he’s a shaky putter in pressure situations and he has a tendency to have a blow-up hole in every tournament.
I really just want DJ to win one of these things, for his own safety and sanity. If this were a fair world and a fair game, he’d have two or three by now.
Simply put, Rory McIlroy is the best golfer on the planet right now. I’m not just talking about world ranking, Rory McIlroy is the most impressive player I’ve seen in golf post-2008 Torey Pines (Tiger). He is crazy long and accurate off the tee, can drop long irons so soft they should be in a Dove commercial, and makes putts that others would three-putt. If he hadn’t switched equipment in 2013 (can’t turn down Nike’s hundreds of millions) there’s a decent chance he’d have 7 or 8 majors by now, and I still think he’s not as good as he could be.
This is Rory’s first tournament back from a pretty serious ankle injury, and obviously there are red flags involved with that. Rory’s mere presence raises the tournament to another level, and the fact that he doesn’t win every week shows you how hard it is to win a golf tournament. I still think Rory is going to place high because he is going to be so excited to play, and fresh mentally. But in the end, not quite sharp enough to get it done.
Bubba Watson shouldn’t be good at golf. He’s never had a lesson, fights with his caddie, and doesn’t listen to anyone. But when you can hit the ball 350 consistently, that helps. Watson was involved in the playoff in 2010, and likes this course setup. His length is going to be a huge advantage, and he’s in great form with runner up finishes in his last two starts.
The biggest thing for Bubba is that he feels comfortable. At Augusta, Bubba feels really comfortable, and has two green jackets to prove it. Sometimes he’s near the top of the leaderboard and yet looks almost in pain out there, and before you know it he’s missed two or three tap-in distance putts in a row. He will go as far as his putter lets him this week, but he’s extremely dangerous. Not my champion pick simply because of consistency, but wow it was tempting.
The Guy Who’s Way Better Than You, But You Can Relate To
We can all relate to Henrik Stenson. Whenever you go out to the course to practice, would you rather spend time on the practice green stroking putts the whole time, or trying to bang your irons and driver as far as you possibly can? Duh, there’s no question. I love Stenson’s chances this year, despite shooting 80-75 and missing the cut in 2010, because he is number one on the PGA tour in total driving (accuracy+distance composite), greens in regulation, and ball striking (total driving+Greens in regulation composite). Number one. As of right now, he may be the best player in the world from the tee box to the green. Small problem, he’s a very inconsistent putter, and clutch putting is a key to winning any major, especially at Whistling Straights where every player is going to face a lot of six to seven foot par saving putts. But if he can put that putter in the oven and heat that baby up, I could see him hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy over his head on Sunday.
The Guy You Hate for No Good Reason
I’ve always hated Justin Rose, and I don’t know why. I guess I just assume everyone feels the same way. I think it’s really just Ryder Cup hostility. He really embodies the European team stereotype: buttoned up, composed, and not flashy yet effective. But I see it as stuck up, conceited, and annoyingly consistent. That little grin he does (right), and his serious fist pump face (left), ugh can’t stand it for some reason. Sorry y’all, can’t turn off the ‘Merica pride, UU RAH!
But Rose is in great form, and his game is almost perfect for this golf course. I was so close to picking him as my champion, because he is so accurate off the tee and sneaky long, his ball striking with his irons has been great lately, and last week he was rolling in putts from everywhere.
The only thing that turned me back? He missed the cut in 2010, where he shot 74-74 and just never really got it going. Clearly it’s going to take a little time for him to settle in this week, and that may be time he doesn’t have. However, I am very confident he’ll be in contention and there’s a good chance he could win it.
The 2015 PGA Champion
Four out of the last six PGA Champions have been first time major winners. Out of the four majors, the PGA Championship has the least amount of pressure for untested players, and it comes at the end of a long stretch of huge tournaments so almost every player is used to playing on a huge stage. But the man who is ready to become a major champion this week is Jason Day.
After battling an injury in the first part of the season, Day looked like a favorite to win the US Open this year until he was hit with vertigo, and played through it in a heroic performance that landed him a top ten finish. Then at The (British) Open, he had a putt to get into the playoff that came up just short, which broke him down to tears on the green. Both of those performances show me just how badly he wants to win one of these. Really, REALLY bad.
The game is there, he hits it a mile and is especially good at stretch his irons out to insane lengths. He’s not a great putter but
he’s definitely shown he doesn’t shy away from the big putts. I saw him on the practice tee today and the most noticeable thing was just how comfortable he looked. As he blasted shot after shot he didn’t show any hesitancy or struggle at all, and it looks like he isn’t tweaking or messing with anything.
He finished top ten in the 2010 tournament and I think he really enjoys the course, which could be important if the conditions get tough on the weekend. It’s his time. Crown him crown him, the 2015 PGA Champion, Jason Day!
By Matt Craig
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