The 2014 PGA Championship gets underway Thursday at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky. Monitoring the leaderboard may be undesirable for some fans toward the beginning of the tournament, but there is reason to be intrigued in the early going at the season's final major.
A number of the game's best players are entering Valhalla on a hot streak. Much of the focus rightfully goes on Rory McIlroy, the new top-ranked player in the world, who won The Open Championship and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in his last two starts.
McIlroy seeks to go for a rare third straight win, while Tiger Woods, who won the 2000 PGA Championship at this venue, is teeing it up after withdrawing in Akron during the final round last weekend.
Those are the obvious two stars to watch for. The first day or two of majors often lend to unexpected names ascending to the top of the pack, but by the end, a number of marquee names should be in the hunt for the Wanamaker Trophy.
Read on for the biggest storylines regarding McIlroy, Woods and another fan favorite bound for a strong finish. Be sure to keep it here for updated results and standings for the first day of action at the PGA.
Note: Statistics are courtesy of PGATour.com unless otherwise noted.
Top Storylines For PGA's Biggest Names
Dawn of 'Rory Era' Imminent?
Only McIlroy, Woods and Jack Nicklaus have achieved three major titles by the age of 25 since the Masters began in 1934. Holding that type of elite company is no accident, and it's rare for a player to even back up a major with a win in his next start, as McIlroy did at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
McIlroy may be brimming with confidence, yet he's downplaying the notion that he is about to be golf's new king.
"I've had a great run over the past few months, but sometimes people are too quick to jump on the bandwagon," said McIlroy, per BBC Sport. "It's nice to win a few tournaments and get back to where I feel I should be, but I'm not sure you can call that the start of an era."
It's admirable that he is being so humble about his recent on-course prowess, but McIlroy is the undeniable, prohibitive favorite. The golf he has played in his past two victories has indeed brought to mind the way Woods used to run away from the field.
Back in 2012 at Kiawah Island, McIlroy drained a putt on the 72nd hole to win by eight strokes, eclipsing Nicklaus' record winning margin at the PGA Championship. With the style of play McIlroy deploys, the last major may wind up being his best.
In terms of how he relates to par, this is indeed proving to be where McIlroy shines brightest, per ESPN's John Buccigross:
Rory McIlroy Career by Major (to par) PGA -18 Masters +8 Open Champ. +15 U.S. Open +26— John Buccigross (@Buccigross) August 6, 2014
A high ball flight, precise, powerful driving and a hot putter will make McIlroy unstoppable if all those phases of his game are clicking again this week. Based on how he's fared lately, there are no signs to suggest McIlroy will slow down.
Bear in mind, too, that McIlroy's first major could have happened at the 2010 PGA Championship. He had a putt on the last hole that missed to get into a playoff with Bubba Watson and eventual victor Martin Kaymer.
The year before, he'd tied for third in the event. It's no coincidence he's been in contention most often in this major; he even finished in the top 10 in 2013 amid a perpetual slump. It would be appropriate if the PGA became the first Grand Slam tournament he'll have won twice this weekend.
Whether Tiger Woods Will Contend or Pretend
If the golf is going well and Woods is going through the impact zone unimpeded by that nagging back, golf fans should rejoice, because last week's fiasco at Firestone may indeed be an aberration.
Kelly Tilghman of Golf Channel noted that Woods' tweaked back wasn't to the area he had operated on:
Tiger Woods says back problem was unrelated to surgery. He's playing pain free and for the win.— Kelly Tilghman (@KellyTilghmanGC) August 6, 2014
Maybe it's true that Woods is pain-free just days after withdrawing from a tournament he's won eight previous times and was well out of the hunt in. Based on the physical anguish he appeared to be in, though, that is quite the supposition.
Woods won his last major on a torn ACL and broken leg at the 2008 U.S. Open, so on the other hand, he may be downplaying any potential injury, especially if he's feeling well about his game. That formula worked during his last major triumph.
Kyle Porter of CBSSports.com is among the skeptics who don't believe Woods is near fit enough to contend:
One thing we do know: This is the most dramatic thing Tiger will do all week aside from flirting with the cut line.— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) August 6, 2014
Look, it's not 'game on' or whatever people are saying. Tiger isn't good right now. He's not going to win and he might not make the cut.— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) August 6, 2014
The unmatched competitiveness Woods has displayed over the years has led him to extraordinary heights, but in the latter part of his career, it's now hurting him. ESPN analyst and past PGA Championship winner Paul Azinger hinted at the notion in his analysis:
Of the many impacts Tiger Woods has had on the pro game, "fitness" craze may be the biggest. Yet he's now at the mercy of an unfit body— Paul Azinger (@PaulAzinger) August 7, 2014
Woods is showing up with hardly any preparation and is still expecting to win, as are many of his ardent supporters.
Mental toughness is perhaps Woods' best asset ahead of his wondrous talent. Should the back act up again, he may be able to block out the physical anguish. Absent any other strong results in the 2013-14 season to draw on, though, envisioning Woods finishing anywhere near the top of the leaderboard is a stretch.
Will Phil Mickelson's 62 Provide a Major Spark?
Shooting eight under par in the final round at Firestone gives Mickelson a big boost entering Valhalla. Then again, the same was expected when he finished The Open Championship with a four-under 68.
Mickelson admitted he was a bit miffed by how he started off the Bridgestone Invitational. At least there's a substantial difference between a 68 and 62. In the latter round, all facets of Mickelson's game were clicking en route to 10 birdies.
During the electric display, Shane Bacon of Yahoo Sports highlighted just how much of a breakout performance Mickelson was having in relation to his prior rounds:
Meanwhile, Phil Mickelson makes his ninth birdie of the day. Only had 7 the first three rounds combined. Look out, Valhalla.— Shane Bacon (@shanebacon) August 3, 2014
Playing alongside Woods for the first two rounds ought to give Mickelson some added motivation to play well. Additionally, Mickelson hasn't had a stateside top 10 this season, so he'd do well to get into contention and try to automatically qualify for the Ryder Cup.
At the moment, Lefty is on the outside looking in, per Golf Central:
Absent a strong week at Valhalla, USA captain Tom Watson will have to use one of three valuable at-large picks to choose a player in Mickelson who shouldn't be having any issues qualifying on pure merit.
Which star will win the most majors in the next five years?
All three of the game's biggest names are implicated in September's Ryder Cup. If McIlroy keeps his momentum going, he will continue to be considered the best player in the world and will be teeing it up for Team Europe.
Mickelson needs to find his form, or else his at-large pick might hurt the veteran depth the American side can carry. Meanwhile, Woods may not even be healthy enough to compete, and he will certainly need a captain's pick to join the squad.
As important as the PGA Championship is standing on its own, it also has major Ryder Cup implications. That's not even to mention the golden opportunity Valhalla offers for players to make a huge leap in the points standings ahead of the FedEx Cup playoffs.
An eye will always be toward the future in Louisville this week, namely the rest of this season. However, the bigger-picture implications of a McIlroy victory, Woods' broken-down body and Mickelson's disappointing season at age 44 all could go a long way in shaping the future of professional golf as we know it.