Kiawah Island will trim alot of the competition down
This headline is a bit misleading, because, according to all the literature and reviews out about Kiawah Island, it is a very difficult course to shine on. With strong winds, over 7,600 yards in length and one of the toughest layouts in America, it will be a struggle to break par in the 2012 PGA Championship.
In order to succeed and shine on this course, a player must be long, a good ball striker that is able to keep the ball in play in strong winds and be able to withstand major championship pressure.
One thing that makes it difficult to gauge who will shine on this course is the upset factor. Keegan Bradley, Y.E. Yang, Shaun Micheel and Rich Beem were all winners in the last ten years who seemingly came out of nowhere.
Pair that with the fact that we’ve seen 16 different winners in the last 16 majors, and it makes the field more wide open than ever.
All that being said, there is a group of 10 golfers who should be considered favorites going into the event. They all have one thing in common: a proven ability to handle the pressure in big time events down the stretch.
Lee Westwood always seems to be in the mix in majors on difficult tracks. He made a surge to get himself into contention at Olympic Club in June, following a third place finish at the Masters in April.
Westwood has nine top-10 finishes in majors since 2008, and is quickly becoming like Phil Mickelson, pre-2004. Included in his top-10 finishes are seven top-three finishes.
Westwood is having another top-10 season on the European Tour where strong winds are more routinely faced, like what will be seen at Kiawah Island.
He has the mentality of a grinder and while all the debris falls around him, Westwood will find a way to hold on, and perhaps claim his first major.
Prior to the World Golf Championship at Bridgestone, I did not think Rory McIlroy was a strong candidate at Kiawah Island. His game has been in a bit of disarray since the early part of the year, when he was going back and forth with Luke Donald for the No. 1 golfer in the world ranking.
At Bridgestone, though, McIlroy seemed to find something in his game. He posted three consecutive rounds of 68 or lower, good for a fifth place finish.
One thing to be concerned about is the comments he made prior to the 2011 British Open. He stated (via weiunderpar.com):
“I’m not a fan of golf tournaments that the outcome is predicted so much by the weather. It’s not my sort of golf.”
At Kiawah, the wind is supposed to be a strong factor, which McIlroy will have to deal with.
Everyone is aware of McIlroy’s talent level. He blew away the field in capturing his first major in the 2011 U.S. Open. If his game is on, and he can deal with the wind, he can compete anywhere. Perhaps that will mean his second major.
A player having a breakout season this year is Nicolas Colsaerts. His season has seen him earn more than 1.4 million euros on the European Tour, aided by a win at the Volvo Match Play Championship. That total is good for fifth in the Race to Dubai.
One of Colsaerts’ biggest strengths is his driving distance, a much needed element at Kiawah. He is first on the European Tour in driving distance at 317.1 yards per drive. It’s the biggest reason why he has improved in his other rankings, as Colsaerts’ previous best in driving was 307.7 yards in 2010.
This year, he has eight top-10 finishes. He has played well in the majors, tying for seventh at the British Open. At the U.S. Open, he was tied for fourth heading into Sunday, before a final round 76 derailed his chances.
For the second time in two months, Jim Furyk saw a chance to win a big tournament go off the rails on Sunday at the Bridgestone Invitational. He had a one-shot lead heading into 18, before a double bogey saw him lose by one shot to Keegan Bradley.
While some fans may want to jump off the Furyk bandwagon, that may not be so wise. He is a straight hitter who puts the ball in play, a must on Kiawah’s windy track.
At the U.S. Open, which also requires strong ball striking, he had a lead on the back nine of the final round before coming up just short to Webb Simpson. He has five top-10 finishes this year and ranks third on the PGA Tour in scoring average.
Hopefully for Furyk, he can get into position again and hold on for another major victory.
Another player having a breakout season on the European Tour this year is Francesco Molinari. Molinari is more of a known quantity than Colsaerts, but his recognition has been more because he plays alongside his brother, Eduardo.
Francesco has established his own identity this season, ranking third in the Race to Dubai. He has amassed seven top-10 finishes to go along with one win at the Spanish Open.
Molinari currently ranks third in stroke average and second in greens in regulation on the European Tour, a must in major championships.
If he can continue his strong play to date, he may be in contention for his first career major.
For whatever reason, when the courses get longer, short hitting Zach Johnson seems to defy the odds. He won the 2007 Masters by laying up on every par five and sticking it close with his wedge shots.
This year, he has impressed with four top-two finishes, including two wins. His wins came at the Colonial and John Deere, two landlocked courses, much different than he will see at Kiawah.
Perhaps the best indicator of Johnson’s chances at the PGA is his runner-up finish at another Pete Dye course, the TPC Sawgrass at The Players Championship.
He does the one thing short hitters need to do to contend at long courses—putt. He ranks second on the PGA Tour in putting.
If the flat stick can get hot like in the 2007 Masters, Johnson could win his second major.
When the going gets tough, Tiger Woods seems to get going. However, his game has not been up to his standards the last couple months. At the U.S. Open and British Open, we saw how his wedges aren’t as sharp as they were during his heyday.
Even with his “struggles,” Woods still gave himself a chance to win at both the U.S. Open and British Open. For years, Woods could win even when he only had his “B” game. Now, he can’t necessarily win an event when he's not at his best, but he certainly can contend.
I would expect Woods’ wedges to be sharper than they have been the last two months. If he can keep the ball in play given the wind, Woods could be right back in the winners circle at a major.
One of the most consistent players on the PGA Tour looks to grab his first career major this week at the PGA Championship. Matt Kuchar owns seven top-10 finishes this year, including a victory at The Players Championship.
Kuchar’s win at The Players Championship is significant for two reasons.
First, it shows he can compete at a big-time event that most consider the year’s fifth major.
Second, and most important for this week, TPC Sawgrass is a Pete Dye layout, a trait shared by Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course.
In official majors this year, Kuchar has tied for third at the Masters and ninth at the British Open.
If Kuchar can use the same form seen at Sawgrass, he should be right there to claim his first major.
Graeme McDowell has a track record of success at links courses. He grew up in windy Northern Ireland where links courses are more prevalent than in the United States. McDowell’s one major win actually came at a links-style course, the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
This season, he had two close calls in majors at the U.S. Open and British Open, playing in the final pairing in both events. He knows how to grind and stay in the midst of the pack in tough conditions.
McDowell does something that will be highly prioritized this week at Kiawah—keep the ball in play. He currently ranks fourth on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy.
If he keeps his high standards this week, McDowell is likely to claim his second major.
When Louis Oosthuizen won the 2010 British Open, most thought he was a one-time wonder.
This year Oosthuizen has proven he is much more than a flash in the pan, most recently evidenced by his fourth-place finish at the Bridgestone Invitational.
Oosthuizen currently ranks seventh in the Race to Dubai. He ranks first on the European Tour in both stroke average and greens in regulation. He owns two wins this year and has a runner-up finish at the Masters.
Oosthuizen is credited with having one of the best swings in the game. His win at the 2010 British Open showed he can more than manage the windy conditions. In the second round, when most players were carding scores close to 80, Oosthuizen shot a five-under 67, en route to his seven-shot win.
If the winds pick up at Kiawah, and starts to blow the rest of the competition away, it’s highly likely that Oosthuizen will claim his second major, possibly in record-setting fashion.