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For the first time in I can’t remember how long, I’m more excited for the PGA Championship than any other major besides The Masters.
In a 21-year period of time, few courses can claim the reputation the Ocean Course can. The ‘War on the Shore,’ the 1991 Ryder Cup in which the final putt on the final hole on the final day decided the matches, is considered a seminal moment in golf history. The course was a huge part of the story that year. Mountainous sand dunes, steady gales, impossible shots into difficult holes… the course has been screaming for a true major every since. Credit the PGA for bringing one here. This is their brightest jewel.
The course has undergone constant tinkering since 1991, but there have been two main renovations that have softened the course. The fairways are wider than they used to be, and the grass around the greens (as well as the greens themselves) has been changed mainly to prevent balls from running off into the native dunes and wild grasses. I’ll let James Dalthorp get more into the details of the layout tomorrow.
But when the dust settles, there are several attributes a player needs to emerge victorious at Kiawah. He might not need all of them – and some strengths will completely overpower some weaknesses – but here are the key things I’m looking for in my team this week:
- Great short games. In the old days a straight bump-and-run guy would be favored at the Ocean course, but they’ve resodded the areas around the greens to a ‘stickier’ type of Bermuda grass to prevent balls from running into the gunch, so that’s become more difficult. The flop shot will be in play as well this week, so a more well-rounded short game will be required. It also means players will have plenty of 8- to 10-foot putts for par.
- Good wind players. There will always be wind at the Ocean Course, but how much? Summer breezes in the Lowcountry are usually on the lighter side, but right on the coast it can kick up any time. It’s always nice to be able to control ball flight.
- Long and pretty straight off the tee. As usual, players hitting shorter irons into the greens will have a distinct advantage – the Ocean Course can stretch to 7,900 yards (but will play 7,676, the longest major ever). But specifically, hitting into Kiawah’s angled greens creates very small targets. While a green might be 10,000 square feet, because it is angled away from the player from the fairway and the green drops off on all sides, it effectively divides the green into two 5,000 sf areas (or even smaller depending on the green). That’s a lot easier area to hit with an 8- or 9-iron versus a 5- or 6-iron.
- Players who miss to the right. Right is dead at Kiawah almost universally. The fairways are wide here – 40 yards in most places – but the penalty for missing right is especially severe. Like “lost ball” and “now hitting three” severe.
- Track record on Pete Dye courses. I probably put the least amount of stock in this one because the Ocean Course is so different than the likes of TPC Sawgrass, Whistling Straights or Harbour Town, but there are some similar sightlines off the tee and into a few of the greens. There are some punishing bunkers (all called “sandy areas” here) and the chipping requirements are similar, but players will have a lot more ground to cover to reach the putting surfaces.
- And finally, via @Golf_Stats: In the five years that the PGA Championship has followed the Bridgestone Invitational, the PGA winner had previously finished in the top-25 at Firestone. So recent play is much more important here than at The Open Championship.
Also, since the format changed to a stroke play event in 1958, only one person has defended his PGA Championship title: Tiger Woods (and he’s done that twice, 1999-2000 and 2006-07). It’s worth noting that defending PGA champ Keegan Bradley became the second youngest person to have both a major title and WGC event victory with his win in Akron two days ago. Tiger is the youngest, of course.
Onto the 10-Fer, where once again we’re faced with a monster purse and we’re looking to identify 10 players we think can win. Don't forget to check the field
before selecting your golfer.
10. Louis Oosthuizen
(126th in scrambling, proven wind player, 28th in driving distance, 108th in driving accuracy, 15th in right tendency, 4th at Bridgestone)
Ranked first in putting from 3-5’ but 179th from 5-10’. He also ranks 1st on the European Tour in scrambling, although he has only 16 rounds counted. But that does speak to how well he did when off the green at The Open at Lytham, which has similar runoffs to Kiawah (although not as severe). I thought he was set to play well last week and he did – I just like his form right now.
9. Matt Kuchar
(14th in scrambling, proven wind player, 107th in driving distance, 54th in driving accuracy, 68th in right tendency, T8 at Bridgestone)
He’s not flashy, he’s not powerful, but he’s consistent and performs in every environment. No reason to think he won’t this week.
8. Justin Rose
(23rd in scrambling, proven wind player, 86th in driving distance, 30th in driving accuracy, 164th in right tendency, T5 at Bridgestone).
When he does miss the fairway, the good news is that he is 1st on Tour in both GIR% from Other Than Fairway and Scrambling from the Rough. Got the putter going in Ohio last weekend, which is always a good sign.
7. Zach Johnson
(21st in scrambling, proven wind player, 162nd in driving distance, 20th in driving accuracy, 81st in right tendency, T40 at Bridgestone)
He’s a threat in any event this year and with his short game he could have a special week. Tenacious competitor, he’s one that likes difficult conditions.
6. Ian Poulter
(2nd in scrambling, proven wind player, 129th in driving distance, 56th in driving accuracy, 112th in right tendency, T29 at Bridgestone)
On the surface this one seems made for him, as well as he plays tough courses. I also get the sense that the Euros are going to have a little extra mojo this week because of the history of the venue. The PGA has a history of recognizing first-time major winners, too (6 in the last 11 events). I also see him making a Sunday charge from four or five shots back.
5. Graeme McDowell
(156th in scrambling, proven wind player, 131st in driving distance, 4th in driving accuracy, 35th in right tendency, T24 at Bridgestone)
GMac has been in the final group the last two majors. His game is made for majors and his scrambling stat is surprising. He takes everything up several notches for the majors and he’s paid dividends for my team every time.
4. Dustin Johnson
(43rd in scrambling, proven wind player, 7th in driving distance, 159th in driving accuracy, 24th in right tendency, T19 at Bridgestone)
He’ll be a popular choice this week. Has all the measurables and if he can have a great week around the greens he will be there at the end. It’s just a matter if he’ll be able to hold up when the big trophy is on the line. I bet he does the next time he’s in that position, but I’m not sure it’ll be this week.
3. Jason Dufner
(20th in scrambling, average wind player, 59th in driving distance, 19th in driving accuracy, 119th in right tendency, 7th at Bridgestone)
I just seeing him being in the hunt come Sunday. He’s been there at different stages in each of the last four majors. Having an outstanding year; a major would likely give him Player of the Year honors.
2. Tiger Woods
(14th in scrambling, proven wind player, 37th in driving distance, 36th in driving accuracy, 20th in right tendency, T8 at Bridgestone)
Tiger is the best on Tour in approaches from 175 to 200 yards, and 18th from 150 to 175 yards; those are distances he’ll be hitting from regularly this week. If he gets a lot closer he’ll be in trouble: he ranks 143rd or worse from the measuring blocks from 50-100 yards. It’s tough not to include someone who has contended in each of the last two majors. His putter might be struggling, but his ballstriking in a major can mask a lot of that.
1. Steve Stricker
(9th in scrambling, proven wind player, 148th in driving distance, 57th in driving accuracy, 6th in right tendency, T2 at Bridgestone)
Just about the only thing Strick hasn’t done is win a major. He meets a lot of my criteria here, too, and if the wind lays down this week his lack of distance off the tee isn’t going to be an overwhelming factor. I love the way he’s playing – T2 last week, T5 at The Deere three weeks ago, making a ton of putts, and nothing worse that T23 in five events. Time to break the major ice.
Considered But Ruled Out:
- Rory McIlroy (63rd in scrambling, 6th in driving distance, 166th in driving accuracy, 52nd in right tendency). A maddening option right now. There are only a handful of players who have the firepower to overpower Kiawah, and he’s one of them. A good result last week (T5) is the sign we’ve been looking for. Wide fairways will be especially helpful to him – he’s been just a little off with the club for a couple of months now. Ten extra yards of width might be all he needs. But I still can’t trust him with so many others playing well in the field.
- Carl Pettersson (15th in scrambling, improving wind player, 34th in driving distance, 141st in driving accuracy, 7th in right tendency, 28th at Bridgestone). There's not much not to like for Crazy Carl, other than that he hasn’t had much, if any, success in a major. Additionally I’m just not a huge fan of the long putter in windy conditions; Adam Scott proved very recently that it can get balky in the clutch when the wind kicks up.
- Luke Donald (12th in scrambling, average wind player, 174th in driving distance, 18th in driving accuracy, 30th in right tendency, T8 at Bridgestone). Recent play has been great. If all else fails, he’s a likely candidate to sneak into the top-10 on Sunday with an under-par round.
- Phil Mickelson. Not feeling it. Recent play has been poor to say the least. He could easily slip out of the eight-spot in the Ryder Cup standings. What does Captain Love do then?
- Webb Simpson (83rd in scrambling, 113th in driving distance, 109th in driving accuracy, 49th in right tendency). Just too many question marks with Webb. He hasn’t played since Greenbrier due to the birth of his daughter.
- Hunter Mahan (102nd in scrambling, 12th in driving accuracy, 162nd in right tendency). Hunter just isn’t playing very well right now. All of the talk at the beginning of the season was about his improved short game, and he got two wins with it. But as you can see, he’s dropped well off.
- Adam Scott (130th in scrambling, 14th in driving distance, 142nd in driving accuracy, 172nd in right tendency). I don’t trust his short game or his psyche.
- Bubba Watson (151st in scrambling, 1st in driving distance, 127th in driving accuracy, 165th in right tendency, T19 at Bridgestone). Bubba also leads the Tour in GIR% and converts 32.2% of his birdie opportunities (9th). He also lost in a playoff on the Dye-designed Whistling Straights a couple of years ago, and that course is probably the most similar to Kiawah in Dye's catalog. But he's going to hit some good shots this week that will end up in weird spots, and his short game isn't consistent enough to recover.
- Brandt Snedeker (10th in scrambling, 112th in driving distance, 122nd in driving accuracy, 106th in right tendency). He has the potential to grind out a top-5 this week in trying to secure a spot on the Ryder Cup team, and the wide fairways here will really help him… but he’s just not one of the top-10 picks this week.
- Lee Westwood (190th in scrambling, 7th in right tendency, 70th at Bridgestone). He’s been fighting his swing for the last six weeks, and the results have shown it.
- Keegan Bradley (80th in scrambling, 128th in right tendency, 1st at Bridgestone). I just don’t like his chances if the wind kicks up at all.
- Rickie Fowler. That final round at The Memorial has really done a number on his game. This course should setup OK for him, but I just don't trust his form. His measurables are decent, too... but his main miss is right (147th in tendency).
- Thomas Bjorn. Great scrambler, but isn’t driving it well and his miss is right. Still, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him put it together here – he was on the fringes of contending at Lytham before a poor final round.
- Vijay Singh. His game is rounding into form, but trusting his short game in difficult conditions is a lot to ask. Wouldn’t be surprising if he backdoors a top-15, however.
- Ernie Els. He does a lot of things on my list slightly better than average, but his big miss is to the right and he hasn’t played well since The Open. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him contend, however.
- John Senden. Could contend this week, but his putting is enough to hold me off. Has an underrated short game, however.
- Francesco Molinari. Just not feeling it for him this week, but he has the potential to be solid.
Photo: US Presswire