2014 PGA Championship Predictions: Last-Minute Picks and Projections
All you really need to know about lush Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky, where the 2014 PGA Championship will be played, is that the layout was designed by Jack Nicklaus.
Really, how much better does it get than that?
The 7,458-yard, par-71 layout favors players who can hit the ball a long way off the tee yet keep it in the fairway. That puts a number of the game's greatest players into the mix, including superstars such as British Open champion Rory McIlroy and Masters champ Bubba Watson as well as lesser-known players such as J.B. Holmes and Brooks Koepka, who are seeking their first major titles.
There is also Rickie Fowler, who is seeking that elusive first major. Kyle Porter of CBSSports.com offered this opinion of what winning the PGA would mean for Fowler: "If he wins Valhalla we can officially throw him in the 'best American golfer alive' conversation which seems crazy because he's only won one time on tour but that's what happens when you top-five three times in majors and win a PGA Championship."
Then there is the Tiger Woods sideshow. In a bizarre, circus-like event Wednesday afternoon, Woods arrived to play a practice round to test if his balky back could take it. After playing nine holes, he paused to tell the media, via the New York Daily News, that he intends to tee off as scheduled on Thursday at 8:35 a.m. with Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington.
Read on to see how it all adds up to a very interesting PGA Championship, including Tiger and Phil's chances, a possible first-time winner and prediction of the favorite to win.
Finally, a Tiger Sighting
Tiger Woods' reserved parking space at Valhalla was strangely empty early in the week, as he was nowhere to be found at Valhalla after withdrawing from the final round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last Sunday because of back pain.
The fact that Woods withdrew from a high-profile tournament because of a back issue was big news, obviously, because he missed three months earlier this year after undergoing back surgery. He returned in time to play in one tournament before the British Open, missing the cut at Congressional, and then struggled in both the British Open (where he finished 69th) and much of his first three rounds-plus at the WGC-Bridgestone (where he was 18 shots out of the lead when he withdrew on the ninth hole of his final round).
How effective will he be this weekend? That's hard to say. Or sadly, maybe it isn't.
While it will be great to have him back, he's not even close to being the same Tiger who won the PGA Championship in 1999, 2000 (at Valhalla, no less), 2006 and 2007. After seeing him struggle even before last Sunday's setback, this is the first PGA Championship in a long time where it would rate as a major surprise if Woods crept up the leaderboard at any point.
What About Phil?
Phil Mickelson gave himself and his legion of fans reason for hope with a 62 in the final round at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational that seemed to shock even him.
"Really, just two days prior, it was just horrific. So it was an important day for me to get some momentum," Mickelson told Bleacher Report's Art Spander after the round.
As Spander noted, Mickelson, 44, hasn’t had a top-10 finish in any PGA Tour event in more than a year and is scrambling to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team for a 10th straight time. He enters this weekend 10th in FedEx points, with the top nine receiving automatic spots on the Ryder Cup team (although it's hard to imagine Tom Watson not making him a captain's pick even if Lefty fails to nail down an automatic bid).
It has been a pretty nondescript year in the majors for Mickelson. After missing the cut in the Masters, he finished 28th in the U.S. Open and 23rd in the British Open, where he was defending champion. His short game and putting, once not only the mainstays of his game but arguably the best of anyone playing, have uncharacteristically betrayed him—much the way those facets of golf betray many aging players.
But he shot a 62 just last Sunday, making 10 birdies in a single round. That's enough to generate some optimism.
Sergio Sick of Finishing Second
Sergio Garcia has to be tired of playing second fiddle to some of the game's greatest champions. Then again, if you aren't going to win a tournament, finishing second at least beats all other alternatives.
As hard as it is to believe, it was 1999 when Garcia, then only 19, dueled with a young, healthy Tiger Woods before Woods secured the first of what would be (to date) four PGA Championships. Garcia is now 34 and remains perhaps the best player in the world to have never won a major.
He has played much better, however, over the last couple of years and especially recently since taking some time away from the game in 2009. He finished second to Rory McIlroy both in the British Open and in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and responded positively to reporters' questions about the state of his mind and his game, as compared to McIlory's.
"I would say we're both feeling quite good about ourselves at the moment,” Garcia said, per the Toronto Sun. "We both feel quite comfortable where we are and quite happy. So thanks to that, I think we're both playing well."
Yes, well, there is one major difference—well, three major differences, actually. McIlroy joined Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only players in the history of the game to win three majors by age 25 when he won the latest British Open. Garcia is rapidly approaching middle age with no majors to his credit, although he now has finished runner-up twice at both the British Open and the PGA Championship.
Ryder Cup Reality
The game within the game for the American players at this PGA Championship is intriguing indeed.
With the top nine players in FedEx points earning automatic bids to the U.S. Ryder Cup team, this is their last chance to jockey for position. And they all are well-aware of it.
That's why Jason Dufner, eighth in points coming in, is playing despite what he told Jennie Rees of USA Today was the advice of doctors that he take six to eight weeks off to deal with an "arthritic and degenerative" neck condition that has bothered him since the Masters earlier this year.
Dufner is sandwiched in between Zach Johnson at No. 9 and Patrick Reed, who jumped from 10th to seventh in points by virtue of his first top-10 finish in a tournament since March last weekend. Others within striking distance of earning an automatic bid with a strong showing at Valhalla are Mickelson, Keegan Bradley, Brendon Todd, Ryan Moore, Chris Kirk, Webb Simpson and Harris English.
Has It Really Been 23 Years and Can Daly Help Dustin?
Has it really been 23 years since John Daly shocked the golfing world by seemingly coming out of nowhere to win the 1991 PGA Championship?
Oh yes, and he's still out there knocking the little white ball around.
In fact, Daly, who has had his own many well-documented problems away from the golf course, has even offered to help Dustin Johnson get himself straightened out, according to FOXSports.com. Johnson is currently taking a leave of absence from the PGA Tour for personal reasons after reportedly failing three drug tests since 2009, according to Golf.com.
"I would love to help but I know how things are and he would have to come to me," Daly told TMZ Sports. Daly has openly admitted that alcohol problems have hindered his career, but told TMZ he continues to be committed to staying sober these days.
And yes, Daly is playing in this PGA Championship. Wouldn't it be something if he came out of nowhere to actually contend?
Rose Could Bloom
Justin Rose might be a great sleeper pick to win at Valhalla.
He's having one of the better years of his career after winning the Quicken Loans National and the Scottish Open in back-to-back weeks leading up to the British Open. He has had five top-12 finishes since the Masters, including finishing in a tie for fourth in last week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Rose, who finished third in 2012 PGA Championship and won his first and to date only major by claiming the 2013 U.S. Open, could bloom again this weekend.
Valhalla Could Favor Big Bombers Named Bubba
Bubba Watson may not think much of the PGA Championship's renewed long-drive competition, but he knows his famous pink driver may give him an advantage at Valhalla.
Instead of hitting a driver at the 595-yard, par-five 10th hole in the competition on Tuesday, Watson pulled out a 3-iron and hit that a country mile instead. "I was just trying to prove a point that nobody cared about it," Watson later said, per The Courier-Journal.
When he plays the course for real during the championship, Watson no doubt will be gripping and ripping his pretty pink driver on that hole and many others. At 7,458 yards, Valhalla Golf Club is the longest par-71 in PGA Championship history. It is slightly longer than Augusta National, where the Masters is played to a par of 72.
The longer the course, the greater the benefit for big hitters like Watson, who leads the PGA Tour in average driving distance at 314.8 yards. The course is set up for Watson and other long-ball hitters such as Rory McIlroy and J.B. Holmes, provided they can keep the ball in the fairway off the tee.
Can Dufner Defend?
Jason Dufner is hurting. But as defending PGA champion, he told reporters at Valhalla on Tuesday that he never considered bowing out of the tournament.
Not only does he feel an obligation to defend the title he earned last year by outlasting Jim Furyk and others, but Dufner said he still desperately wants to play for the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He enters this tournament eighth in FedEx points, with the top nine earning automatic bids on the squad.
He also enters with a neck injury that ultimately will require six to eight weeks off to help him deal more effectively with what doctors told him was an "arthritic and degenerative" condition in his neck.
"But to be honest, it's kind of a blessing," the 37-year-old said, per Jennie Rees of USA Today. "I need to take a serious look at my health and maybe make a better effort to be in better shape. Because if you don't have your health out here, as you can see with a pretty prominent player (Tiger Woods) and myself, it's pretty hard to be competitive out here.
"So in the end, I look forward to being really healthy for next season and getting through this season, and hopefully I can have some good results one way or another."
Kudos to Dufner for gutting it out, but it sounds like he'll be hard-pressed to make the 36-hole cut, much less successfully defend his championship.
And the Latest First-Time Winner of a Major Could Be ...
Rickie Fowler is stalking his first major championship. There is no doubt about that.
As proof, simply look at what he has done in the three 2014 majors prior to this PGA Championship. He tied for fifth at the Masters and then tied for second in both the U.S. Open and the British Open.
So Fowler has been knocking on the door, and he has the look of a player with the right combination of skill, determination and mental mindset to kick it down any tournament now. So this could be the one.
His work with legendary swing coach Butch Harmon appears to be paying dividends, and he knows the value of hard work.
"I come from great stock," Fowler told USA Today. "I didn't come from money. My parents both worked really hard to keep food on the table and give my sister and me opportunities to play sports and see what we were good at."
Obviously, he proved to be pretty good at golf. Now he seems ready to take the next step and is a solid bet to contend—again—for his first major championship.
But the Winner Will Be ...
You can't bet against Rory McIlroy now.
Not with the way he is playing and the way Valhalla Golf Club is set up for heavy hitters like the Northern Irishman.
Having won the British Open and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational heading into this PGA Championship, McIlroy is a taut, lethal combination of brute strength, mental muscle and supreme confidence.
Via The Associated Press (h/t The Buffalo News), he told reporters at Valhalla that he has stepped up his game away from the course, adding about seven pounds of muscle in recent months via a more rigorous workout regimen. Combine that added strength with a shortened golf swing that has improved his accuracy, and you begin to get an idea of why McIlroy's play suddenly is so dominant (and more consistent than in recent months).
None other than Phil Mickelson had this to say to the AP after McIlroy's latest win on the difficult WGC-Bridgestone Firestone course:
He's such a great driver of the golf ball. Even though the golf course was fairly tight and hitting fairways is important, he kept hitting drivers and he kept putting the ball in play and he kept playing the course aggressively and making birdies. And he plays to his strength. He's just a very good talent. We've been waiting a year, year-and-a-half now for it to turn. And it's really turned for him. And he's tough to beat.
Enough said. McIlroy is the obvious favorite this weekend, and deservedly so.
Joe Menzer has written six books and now writes about golf and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.