The season's final major starts one week from today. That's hard to believe. It seems like just yesterday Greg Norman was on the verge of winning this year's British Open, only to falter in the final round. In the end, Padraig Harrington won his second consecutive Claret Jug and will be a favorite next week at Oakland Hills. My most recent memories of Oakland Hills aren't real positive. It was the sight of Europe's blowout Ryder Cup victory in 2004. Nonetheless, it's a great golf course and will do its part to make next week's PGA Championship an exciting one.
As for storylines, there are plenty heading in. A certain contender for PGA Tour Player of the Year will be teeing it up in a major for the first time this season. It's about damn time by the way. Also, with Ryder Cup picks coming in the next few weeks, there are heavy Ryder Cup implications at the year's final major championship. I'll talk about that and more as we gear up for glory's last shot.Top-10 Struggles
Oakland Hills isn't going to be a bomber's paradise like some major venues have been in recent seasons. Accuracy off the tee is going to be key next week, and that is a bad thing for many of the world's best. Every golfer currently ranked in the top 10 in the world is outside the top 100 in driving accuracy. Luckily, most of them can bounce back and hit a lot of greens in regulation. Still, it's going to be a struggle for the big bombers to keep the ball in favorable scoring positions throughout the week.
Padraig Harrington is one of the main favorites going in, but there is a good chance he will struggle just as he did at last year's PGA Championship. The Irishman received a lot of attention at Southern Hills after winning last year's British Open, and he limped to a tie for 42nd. He may do better than that next week, but it won't be much better.
With Tiger Woods out, Phil Mickelson will be the top-ranked golfer in the field. That always comes with lofty expectations, and things just haven't looked solid for Lefty all season. Just as things start going the right way during a round, he cards a double bogey or worse. Mickelson will probably spend a lot of time in the rough at Oakland Hills, and yes, his collapse at Winged Foot two years ago still haunts.
Out of all the golfers ranked in the top ten in the world, Sergio Garcia will have the best chance to do well next week. Garcia's driving accuracy stats aren't great, but he is the best ball striker in the world not named Tiger. He can move the ball both ways, and that's going to benefit him greatly at the PGA Championship. In the end, it all depends on how many putts he can sink. If he putts well, the Wannamaker Trophy could very well be his. If not, it could be another mediocre result for the Spaniard.
Other golfers ranked inside the top ten include Adam Scott, Ernie Els, Geoff Ogilvy, Stewart Cink, Steve Stricker, and Henrik Stenson. Scott, Els, and Ogilvy will be in trouble all week off the tee. Cink has had a good season, but you never know how he will putt in clutch situations. Steve Stricker has been a shell of the golfer he was a year ago. Stenson finished strong at the British Open, and while he could hang around the leaderboard for a little while, he won't be a factor in the end. Did I mention it's going to be a long week for the top 10?
Kenny Perry Sighting
That's right: Kenny Perry is actually going to play in a major this season. He didn't have to qualify, so he couldn't use that as an excuse. The event is in the United States, so he couldn't use that excuse either. The Reno-Tahoe Open is this week, not next, so he couldn't play that event instead. After all that, Perry is in the field at Oakland Hills, and you guessed it, he is one of the favorites just as he would have been at Torrey Pines and Royal Birkdale.
The Kentucky native is playing as well as any golfer in the world, and he has a legitimate shot to win his first major next week. There are numerous holes that set up for a draw, and Perry can hit a draw with the best of them.
Perry has closed the deal very well when he has had the chance, so it's important for him to get off to a good start. He has put himself in contention just about every time he has teed it up lately, and he will do the same next week. If his putting holds up down the stretch, he will have a chance to win. If he wins the Wannamaker Trophy, he will be a front-runner for PGA Tour Player of the Year.
I mentioned above how the world's best could struggle next week, and that means there could be room for some surprises to sneak in and win a major. For some reason, I get the feeling we could see another "Shaun Micheel" or "Mark Brooks" walk away with the Wannamaker Trophy. Steve Jones won the 1996 U.S. Open played at Oakland Hills, and he was ranked 100th in the world.
A couple Scottsdale, AZ guys come to mind. The first is Tom Lehman. While it wouldn't be a complete shocker if Lehman won, it would be pretty surprising as he is well past his prime. Everyone knows he prefers to hit a draw, and he has had success at Oakland Hills before (tie for second at 1996 U.S. Open). Keep an eye on the former Ryder Cup Captain.
The second guy who could shock the world is Billy Mayfair. Mayfair is ranked seventh in driving accuracy and eighth in greens in regulation. His putting has let him down this season, but he is as streaky as they get. He is coming off a second-place finish at the Canadian Open, and he could definitely make some waves next week. It's a long shot, but golf fans have seen crazier.
Ryder Cup Implications
Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo won't make their captain's picks for a few more weeks, but you can bet the PGA Championship will play a part in their decisions. A great performance at the season's final major could clinch a spot on one of the teams or at least put them in the hunt for a spot.
On the European side of things, there are some big names currently not on the team. Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter are both on the outside-looking-in, but they are both pretty close. Garcia is just outside the top five on the World Points List, and Poulter is close on the World Points list and European Points List. Both would be solid captain's picks, but for their sake, it would be a lot less stressful if they qualified on their own.
The PGA Championship also gives past Ryder Cup stalwarts Colin Montgomerie and Paul Casey a chance to sneak up the rankings. Neither golfer has had a great season, but both are still in the hunt for a spot on Nick Faldo's team. It's going to be fun watching how things progress over the next week or two (including this week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational).
As for the Americans, there is a close battle as well. Paul Azinger will have four captain's picks, and you can bet he will pick the guys who have played well lately. Guys on the "bubble" include Steve Stricker (currently in the eighth spot), Woody Austin, Rocco Mediate, Hunter Mahan, and D.J. Trahan. Other guys beyond that will have some work to do, and next week will give them every opportunity to make a move. There will more than likely be a lot of shuffling in the next few weeks.
The Final Say
The PGA Championship gets overlooked sometimes because of the name recognition of the other three majors. When it comes down to it, however, this is possibly the strongest field of the season, and anyone who wins will earn every bit of it.
This year's event may not have a Tiger in the field, but that doesn't mean it will be a boring week by any means. There are more than enough interesting storylines to keep the hardcore and casual golf fan intrigued. If you are on the fence about watching next week, get off the fence and in front of a television set. It's going to be an exciting ride.
It's your turn to tell me what you think about next week's PGA Championship. How do you think the top 10 will fare? Also, can Kenny Perry finally win his first-career major? Finally, which golfers (Europeans and Americans) will make a move at Oakland Hills next week and solidify a spot on their respective teams? If you have anything to add, please comment below or discuss it in the forum. Thanks for reading this week's Thrash Talk.
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