PGA Championship Field 2014: Golfers to Watch on Day 1 at Valhalla

Brendan O'MearaFeatured ColumnistAugust 6, 2014

PGA Championship Field 2014: Golfers to Watch on Day 1 at Valhalla

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    The 96th PGA Championship returns to Valhalla Golf Club, the site of an epic back-and-forth between Bob May and Tiger Woods back in 2000. And until late Wednesday afternoon, it was unclear whether Woods would be healthy enough to play. 

    "I'm not in any pain," Woods told USA Today.

    The renewal of this tournament brings a new set of characters. Rory McIlroy was 11 years old when Woods won this event 14 years ago. Now McIlroy is one of the heaviest favorites to win this major (9-2, according to Odds Shark).

    The way McIlroy has come out the past two tournaments (The Open Championship and the Bridgestone Invitational), Day 1 is critical for the entire field, but especially for the following 10 golfers.

    Read on to see who you should pay the most attention to on Day 1 at Valhalla.

11. Tiger Woods

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Tee Time: 8:35 a.m. ET; No. 10 tee (with Padraig Harrington and Phil Mickelson)

    Why You Need to Watch: Does this even need addressing? Woods moves the meter. This was a captivating tournament without him and throwing him in makes him the most interesting side act in sports. 

    Woods? Side act? This year, yes. 

    Will Woods' back stay in one piece, or will he step wrong as he did at the Bridgestone? Will he spray his driver like pesticides or will he dial back a club and keep in the fairway? He's a far cry from repeating his efforts from 2000, but he's here and that's good great news for TNT and CBS.

    Thursday’s Pass or Fail: Driving and hitting fairways. That's obvious for one reason: it allows for better approaches. That's Golf 101. But the real reason he needs to be accurate? He needs clean swings, not awkward lies and weed-whacking second shots. 

    If his feet are uneven, if his hands come in tight, if his swing is abbreviated due to inaccuracy, it'll throw his body off balance and we saw what happened when he lost his footing on the second hole at Firestone CC.

    Prediction: If he stays healthy, Woods should have a day a few strokes above par. He's going to have to grind out pars to stay in it in the first day. All it takes is one bad swing and he's on a golf cart heading straight for Air Tiger.

10. Matt Kucher

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Tee Time: 9:05 a.m. ET; No. 10 tee (with Louis Oosthuizen and Justin Rose)

    Why You Need to Watch: Matt Kucher doesn’t inspire the kind of golf lust many of the other golfers trigger on this list, but did Jason Dufner (last year’s winner of this event) ever inspire that the kind of confidence? Kyle Porter of CBS Sports wrote:

    It would be fitting for Kuchar to win a PGA Championship, I think. We'll always remember him as a nice golfer—maybe a really good one—but I don't know that the name "Matt Kuchar" will ever invoke the thought "great champion" so I'm not sure how much winning a PGA changes that trajectory.

    Kucher finished T5 at The Masters, T12 in the U.S. Open and T54 at The Open Championship. Summoning the type of effort from the first two majors is reason enough to watch him on Day 1.

    Thursday’s Pass or Fail: Valhalla benefits those who can bomb and birdie. Kucher can birdie, but he doesn’t bomb. He’s 145th on tour in driving distance. Distance isn’t everything. Accuracy matters too, and he’s 20th in accuracy.

    From there it’s all about getting to within 20 feet of the pin. He’s fourth in scoring average and 11th putting from 10-20 feet.

    Prediction: Kucher will be in the mix at the PGA. If he plays steady as he always does and some of the real heavy hitters aren’t quite as sharp, Kucher is set for a top-five finish, maybe better.

9. Justin Rose

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Tee Time: 9:05 a.m. ET; No. 10 tee (with Matt Kuchar and Louis Oosthuizen)

    Why You Need to Watch: Rose won the 2013 U.S. Open and two tournaments in a row heading into The Open Championship.

    Rose is having a fine season with one win on the PGA Tour this year and seven top-10s. Rose’s play in the 2014 majors has been lackluster, but he’s always a threat to contend.

    Thursday’s Pass or Fail: Rose is 10th in scoring average, 53rd in driving distance (294.6 yards) and 40th in greens hit.

    Rose needs to find fairways. His 2014 rank in driving accuracy is 122nd, which could be troubling. He needs to shore up his accuracy to take advantage of his length off the tee. He’s no McIlroy off the tee, but Rose does need every possible yard resting in the fairway.

    Prediction: Rose has had a fine 2014 except in the majors: T14, T12 and T23 in the three majors to date. It’s not terrible, but he’ll need to step up his game to crack the top 10.

8. Martin Kaymer

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Tee Time: 1:45 p.m. ET; No. 1 tee (with Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy)

    Why You Need to Watch: If not to watch Kaymer, it’s also to watch this killer group: a Masters winner, an Open Championship and PGA Championship winner and a U.S. Open winner. They’ve got them all covered.

    As for Kaymer, somewhere in that 6-foot frame is the same golfer who went gate-to-wire to win the U.S. Open. Somewhere in there is that same golfer who won the Players Championship, often referred to as the fifth major.

    Thursday’s Pass or Fail: When he won those two tournaments he came out strong. He shot 63 in the first round of the Players and 65 at the U.S. Open. He’s your classic front-runner. Kaymer simply needs to get out in front early. He failed to do that in the Open Championship and the Bridgestone Invitational, tournaments where he finished 70th and T56.

    Maybe it was a health-related issue. His shoulder could have hampered him the last two tournaments. Kaymer told reporters, "So I played a lot of golf the last two weeks. I practiced a lot at the Bridgestone. Practice a lot yesterday and I’m probably going to do a little bit more this afternoon. So I feel good about the game.”

    Prediction: Anyone who can pull off the type of domination we witnessed at the U.S. Open demands respect. Kaymer can put up an opening 65 or he can shoot 73, effectively eliminating him on Day 1.

    He’s in a similar form cycle from when he won his other big tournaments on U.S. soil. If past performance is any indication, Kaymer is primed for a huge effort.

7. Sergio Garcia

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Tee Time: 1:25 p.m. ET; No. 1 tee (with Steve Stricker and Tom Watson)

    Why You Need to Watch: For two reasons: one, Garcia chasing that elusive first major; two, Garcia crumbling in pursuit of that first major. Both are compelling from a pure television perspective.

    Thursday’s Pass or Fail: Garcia has paired two quality efforts in the last two major-quality tournaments, finishing second in the Open Championship and the Bridgestone Invitational to McIlroy.

    Garcia spent the first 15 years of his career chasing Woods, and now it appears McIlroy could be thwarting Garcia at every turn. Garcia is like Andy Roddick, but at least Roddick won a U.S. Open.

    Garcia needs to stay the course and maintain consistency with his putter. If he does that will put him in contention on Sunday.

    Prediction: Garcia was up three strokes on McIlroy heading into Sunday in the Bridgestone Invitational and saw that lead melt down fast. He needs to hit greens and drain putts. Doing that could put him in another final pairing, maybe with his buddy McIlroy.

6. Phil Mickelson

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    Phil Long/Associated Press

    Tee Time: 8:35 a.m. ET; No. 10 tee (with Padraig Harrington and Tiger Woods)

    Why You Need to Watch: Anytime Mickelson groups with Woods it makes for great TV and up until late Wednesday afternoon, it was still unclear whether Woods would tee up or power down. Now we know. Woods is in.

    Nobody, not even McIlory, had a better final round at the Bridgestone Invitational. Mickelson holed 10 (!) birdies to shoot 62, his best round of the year.

    With Lefty, anything can happen. That’s both good and bad.

    Thursday’s Pass or Fail: Mickelson’s 2014 has had its ups and downs, but mainly downs. He has zero top-10s but has five finishes inside the top 15.

    Mickelson seems to play his best when nothing is on the line. His 62 at Firestone was great, but there was no pressure. He shot a third-round 63 at the Wells Fargo Championship, then followed that up with a final-round 76. Up and down.

    Prediction: Mickelson hasn’t put together a complete tournament of golf the entire season. The Mickelson who shot 62 on Sunday beats every golfer on tour. There are lots of 70s on his scorecards in 2014. He may throw in a sparkling Day 1, but the real question is: Can he keep it together for four days?

    He told PGA Tour.com, "It's just kind of the way I play golf. I'm streaky and I'll get on rolls and get some good momentum and all of a sudden the hole looks like it's huge, and then there are days where it's just the opposite. It's just the way it's always been for me."

5. Rickie Fowler

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    Phil Long/Associated Press

    Tee Time: 8:05 a.m.; No. 10 tee (with Victor Dubuisson and Ernie Els)

    Why You Need to Watch: Is there ever a reason not to watch Fowler play? Since missing the cut at The Memorial back in June he’s finished T13, T2, T2 and T8. Those two second-place finishes were in the U.S. Open and the Open Championship. He even finished T5 in the Masters.

    The stage is never too big for Fowler.

    Thursday’s Pass or Fail: Nothing on Fowler’s stat sheet says he should be doing anything spectacular. His best ranking is 35th for driving. Beyond that he looks average on paper.

    Yet why is he co-fifth to win the PGA? He’s been in the top five in every major and has the moxie and confidence to hang with whoever is in his group. He’s shot 71, 70 and 69 on Day 1 of the major tournaments this year. It’s not spectacular scoring, but it keeps him in the mix. He doesn’t lose these tournaments early.

    Prediction: There’s no reason to think Fowler won’t be near the top come Sunday, which means he’ll have yet another great Day 1. He’ll probably be one or two under par after play Thursday.

4. Keegan Bradley

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Tee Time: 1:55 p.m. ET; No. 1 tee (with Y.E. Yang and Jason Dufner)

    Why You Need to Watch: There’s nothing like having the three past winners of the PGA in the same group. Yang is the only golfer ever to beat Woods when Woods had the Sunday lead at a major (the real signal of Woods’ slow demise). Dufner won a year ago, and sandwiched in between is Bradley.

    Watching him during his putting ritual makes for good entertainment. Then there’s also how well he played at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. He shot four rounds under 70 to shot nine under and finish T4.

    Thursday’s Pass or Fail: He’s 13th in total driving and 14th in driving distance. This is key for Valhalla and especially important given that the conditions will probably be soft. Rain is in the forecast, and the longer off the tee these guys can be the better.

    Bradley is 13th in scoring average before the cut, which puts him in great position early in this tournament. Winning the PGA back in 2011 gives him all the confidence he needs to do this again.

    Prediction: Though Bradley didn’t win last weekend at the Bridgestone Invitational, he put together four excellent rounds of golf, all sub-70. That’s the type of consistent excellence that will put him in the top 10 and possibly beyond. Bradley will shoot well on Day 1.

3. Bubba Watson

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Tee Time: 1:45 p.m. ET; No. 1 tee (with Martin Kaymer and Rory McIlroy)

    Why You Need to Watch: The long ball, baby. Watson is No. 1 on tour from the tee, a recipe for success at Valhalla. At times Watson can get unhinged when the pink driver gets temperamental, but that’s the nature of the driver.

    He’s ranked 40th in pre-cut scoring, so he could have a poor showing on Day 1, but getting off to a good start here could wipe out the memories of his play at the U.S. Open and Open Championship, where he missed the cut in both.

    Thursday’s Pass or Fail: Hitting fairways. Watson needs to take full advantage of his superior driving distance to score birdies. When Woods won this tournament back in 2000, it was with a score of 18 under. There are birdies waiting out there.

    If rain softens of the course, the length of time Watson can keep the ball in the air off the tees will signify whether he’s in for a Masters-type effort or an Open effort.

    Prediction: This is Watson's type of course. If he stays in the fairways and can stick his approaches to within 20 feet, he’s going to have a great Day 1 and maybe even bigger weekend. Scott T. Miller of ESPN.com wrote:

    Watson sits outside the top 80 in make percentage from every distance, with one noteworthy exception. The dude makes everything from 15 to 20 feet—and usually nothing else. But when he makes, he often contends: In Bubba's five top-three finishes this season, his average putting rank was 15th, compared with 50th in his seven other tour events.

2. Adam Scott

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Tee Time: 8:15 a.m. ET; No. 10 tee (with Jordan Spieth and Lee Westwood)

    Why You Need to Watch: Scott is now the world’s former No. 1 player. Thanks to three straight bogeys on the back nine at Firestone Country Club, he finished outside the top five, allowing McIlroy to reclaim top honors.

    Scott was one of the favorites heading into The Open Championship and is the second choice for the PGA Championship at 11-1.

    Thursday’s Pass or Fail: In a word, rhythm. This is according to Scott, of course. He says he’s playing some of his best golf, which, if you exclude that three-bogey stretch at Firestone, he is. Scott told Jennie Rees of The Courier-Journal:

    I was really trying to take in as much as I could, and get some good mental images in my head on tees of what trees I should be aiming at, and all those things. If I can get that in early, then there's a level of confidence come Thursday. The more rounds the better, I think. It's a good, solid golf course. It's pretty straightforward off the tee. I think probably into the greens is a little more tricky, and that's where the practice rounds are going to be helpful. Some carries over bunkers and getting a feel for how the ball is flying—that's all important stuff.

    Prediction: Scott is hungry to take back his No. 1 ranking. Losing that stings, no question there. Scott bombs off the tee and ranks 16th in total putting on tour. Expect an effort in accordance with his drive to get back on top. He’s very dangerous and a serious contender to win.

1. Rory McIlroy

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Tee Time: 1:45 p.m. ET; No. 1 tee (with Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer)

    Why You Need to Watch: He’s the hottest golfer on the planet, and this woman thinks so too. McIlroy has assumed the mantle of the next great golfer. Three majors by the age of 25 put him in the company of Jack Nicklaus and Woods. Where will he go now?

    McIlroy knows how to start a tournament. He’s been known to go real low on Thursday. He’s shot 63 on two occasions, and the last two (Open Championship and Bridgestone Invitational) he shot 66 and 69.

    There’s no more exciting talent to watch these days than McIlroy, and he always shows up for Day 1.

    Thursday’s Pass or Fail: Whatever this Northern Ireland native is doing, he just needs to stay the course. His driving has been textbook. McIlroy can thread his driver on fairways, “target golf,” as he said after his win at Firestone this past Sunday, which sets up 120-yard wedges into the greens. He's third in driving and first in birdie average.

    His entire game is suited for most courses but especially Valhalla. He reclaimed the No. 1 ranking and has the target on his back.

    Prediction: McIlroy will be first or second after Day 1. He exited links golf with a scintillating and dominant effort at Firestone. He was down three strokes and eradicated that deficit in three holes.

    He will go low on Day 1, and if he can shoot as well or better on Day 2, McIlroy will raise up his second Wanamaker Trophy.

     

    All stats courtesy of PGATour.com unless otherwise noted.