BMW Championship: Tiger Woods and the Top 10 Contenders

Will Leivenberg@@will_leivenbergFeatured ColumnistSeptember 9, 2010

BMW Championship: Tiger Woods and the Top 10 Contenders

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    Will Cog Hill Golf Course, the site of the third event of the Fed-Ex Cup Playoffs, play host to another shocking final day performance?

    Matt Kuchar capitalized at the Barclay's with a clutch final round and playoff-finish over Martin Laird. Then Charlie Hoffman fired a final round 62 at the Deutsche Bank Championship last week, blistering through the field and capturing the elusive victory.

    Depending on personal perception, the Fed-Ex Cup, just like the 2010 PGA Tour season, has been either plagued or polished by parity.

    Since golf's perennial superman had a harsh encounter with some kryptonite, the journey back to the winner's circle has been arduous. However, though Tiger Woods' struggle to win has left an unmistakable void in the Tour, it's allowed a fresh, diverse group of players to shine throughout the year, from first-time winners like Rory McIlroy to multiple season winners like Hunter Mahan and Steve Stricker.

    But now that Woods has earned a T-12 and T-11 in his last two events plus an official position on the Ryder Cup Team, will he be able to ride that momentum into an overdue Sunday victory? Or, will this legion of dogged PGA Tour pros pose a threat to the World's No.1?

Tiger Woods

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    Tiger Woods routed last year's field at the BMW, pulling away after a third-round 62 and winning by eight strokes.

    Woods will stride to the first tee with the momentum from last year's victory, as well as a T-12 finish at the Barclay's and a T-11 at the Deutsche Bank.

    Interestingly, if you watch Woods in post-round interviews, he will without fail attribute both a solid or terrible performance to his putting. Though his putting has been a crucial factor in his recent success, the most visible change that has allowed him to progress has been minimizing mistakes off the tee.

    Tiger has either left the driver in the bag and relied on his three-wood, which probably outdrives most on Tour anyway, or been incredibly wary of pulling the driver unless totally confident. That kind of cautious play off the tee has played to his advantage because Woods is a wizard with his irons.

    If he can continue to put himself in the fairway, then expect him to be attacking pins and carding low scores.

Luke Donald

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    Luke Donald owns one of the sweetest swings on Tour and may just be the man to bet your money on at this week's Fed-Ex Cup event.

    Can anyone question that Donald is among the top five players in the world right now?

    In addition to his six top 10 finishes and win at the Madrid Masters this season, Donald has produced consistently low scores in the playoffs. He earned a T-15 finish at the Barclay's, which was highlighted by a pair of 64s over the weekend. Then last week at the Deutsche Bank, Donald finished T-2, carding four consecutive rounds in the 60s.

    Donald's stellar play is undeniably due to his No. 6 ranking in scoring average (69.90) on Tour. That stat may be the confluence of the No.1 ranking in sand save percentage, or perhaps because he is ninth in putts per round (28.5), or maybe he's just totally in sync right now. Whatever it is, the Englishmen is currently 12th in Fed-Ex Cup points, meaning a win or top five finish might put the championship within his grasp.

Dustin Johnson

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    Dustin Johnson probably has more sympathy than any other player on Tour right now.

    However, the 25-year-old probably doesn't long for sympathy, but instead retribution.

    Johnson's tragic fault at the PGA Championship a few weeks ago hindered him from competing in the playoff and ended his chances of winning a Major Championship this season. But Johnson still earned two top 10 finishes at Major Championships, in addition to four other top 10's, and a win at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

    This week, Cog Hill's beastly length, measuring just over 7,300 yards, will play to Johnson's favor. Johnson puts a beating on the golf ball, ranking third in driving distance, averaging 307 yards off the tee. Though Johnson's become notorious for the long-ball, the world can't help but notice his incredibly light, crafty touch on and around the greens, which have been crucial to his success.

    Johnson earned T-9 honors at the Barclay's, but struggled in his final round at the Deutsche Bank, finishing T-57. Regardless, he's found a rhythm that clearly works in his swing, and will once more be a threat this week.

Hunter Mahan

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    A two-time winner this season, Mahan has become one of the most threatening players on Tour because he performs best on the weekend.

    In his first win at the Phoenix Waste Management Open, Mahan shot back-to-back 65s on the weekend. Then at Firestone he fired 64-66 on the weekend, solidifying his third professional win, and second of the season.

    Mahan has not only secured his spot on the Ryder Cup team, but he also ranks eighth in Fed-Ex Cup Points. He's not a player you can underestimate. His game seems simple; he's incredibly accurate off the tee (ranks third in total driving), he hits greens, and makes a ton of pars.

    But his unsuspecting nature of weekend recovery is no farce.

    Don't be surprised if Mahan is a middle of the pack player Thursday and Friday, but climbs into the top 10 after Saturday's round.

Matt Kuchar

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    Stats rarely tell the whole story.

    But with Matt Kuchar, trust that the numbers don't lie.

    With more top 10 finishes than any other player on Tour (10), Kuchar owns the most prestigious stat of them all—No.1 All-Around Ranking.The two most important stats at the moment—No.1 in both scoring average (69.61) and Fed-Ex Cup Points.

    He finally broke through two weeks ago to win the Barclay's in a dramatic Sunday finish in a playoff against Martin Laird. Kuchar shot a dazzling final round 66 to force a playoff with Laird, who'd held the 54-hole lead. On the first playoff hole, Kuchar utilized his course knowledge and knocked a seven-iron to the right side of an undulated green and watched it slowly dribble down to within two feet of the hole.

    Coming off his victory, Kuchar earned T-11 honors at the Deutsche Bank. He's on a hot streak, and will undoubtedly be a factor Sunday at Cog Hill.

Phil Mickelson

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    Let's face it, Lefty is a perpetual threat.

    But, that threat is two-fold.

    He's the most talented player on Tour with a wedge in hand, and considering he keeps three wedges in his bag at all times, he's an even more intimidating presence. Mickelson has also increased his flexibility, which has allowed him to make a wider turn in his back-swing and generate more power (No.12 in driving distance, averaging 299-yards). 

    Overall, there's no doubt he's one of the best players to ever grip a club.

    But, putting your money on Phil is a risk because of his tendency to, well, choke.

    Winged Foot in 2006 was one thing—utter collapse on the final hole to lose the US Open—but there have been a variety of instances this season where he put himself in position to capture a victory, but could not capitalize due to countless mistakes. He tends to be aggressive at the wrong times, such as pulling driver on a tight, narrow par 4, when a three-iron or wood could suffice. 

    If he can minimize the costly errors, he'll hopefully be in the mix at the BMW.

Steve Stricker

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    Two wins this season, eight top 10 finishes, and third in Fed-Ex Cup Points.

    Meet Steve Stricker—the most unassuming, talented golfer on the PGA Tour.

    Stricker's swing is not flashy, just mechanically sound. His putting stroke isn't robotic, just fluid and unchanging. You'll rarely find him sporting vibrant, John Daly-like clothing, but instead just your basic black and white. Finally, even if he's just made five birdies in a row, you'll never see him over-excited because he's just a go-with-the-flow kind of guy.

    Though he's struggled at the Majors this season, Stricker captured wins at the Northern Trust Open and John Deere Classic. In the last two weeks of the playoffs, Stricker's finished in the top 10 in each event, carding a T-3 at the Barclay's and T-9 at the Deutsche Bank.

    Stricker doesn't necessarily play cautious golf, but he definitely knows his boundaries. It's this sense of control and confidence that has allowed him to bloom this season and throughout the playoffs thus far.

Adam Scott

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    Rejuvenated? Revived? Revitalized?

    Search the thesaurus to find whatever word you'd like to describe Adam Scott's terrific play of late, just as long as you give credit where credit's due.

    Not only did Scott win the Valero Texas Open earlier in the season, but he's tallied seven top 25s, which include four top 10s. Most recently, Scott has performed exceptionally, finishing T-9 at the Barclay's and T-5 last week at the Deutsche Bank.

    He hasn't missed a cut since June and has rode that momentum into the playoffs, where he's both surprised golf fans as well as reminded them why he was once ranked among the top 10 players in the world.

    Scott's swing is a mechanical masterpiece, but his mental game has inhibited his success. So far in the playoffs, Scott has dealt well with the pressure. Hopefully he can carry that forward vision and rhythm to Cog Hill.

Jason Day

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    You've got to love the enthusiasm and consistently stellar play of Jason Day.

    The only problem is that he's just 23 years old and really hasn't proven his reliability yet.

    His win at the Byron Nelson was almost snagged from him when he put his approach shot in the drink on 18, but luckily so did his playing partner. Though Day hasn't missed a cut since April, he's still a wild card.

    He's carded four top 10 finishes this season, two of which came in the last two weeks during the Fed-Ex Cup playoffs—a T-5 at the Barclay's and T-2 at the Deutsche Bank. There's no doubt that he's found his rhythm, but Cog Hill will be a substantial test for the young gun to prove his worth and resilience among the best on Tour.

Who Do You Think?

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    Geoff Ogilvy came out of nowhere last week at the Deutsche Bank with a weekend of 65-66 to earn T-2 honors. But can the Aussie display the same kind of consistent, aggressive play at Cog Hill?

    Vijay Singh finally turned it on last week and finished T-11 in one of the most competitive fields of the season. Can Singh, the only player to hold the No.1 ranking other than Tiger Woods in the last decade, revive his once triumphant game and come out on top at the BMW?

    What about a guy like Zach Johnson? Not only did Johnson fire an opening round 63 last week, but he's become one of the best and most dependable putters on Tour, hands down. As the playoffs heat up and the pressure builds, Johnson's reliability with the flatstick may elevate him above his peers.

    Now that Rickie Fowler has been officially chosen to represent the US Ryder Cup team, can he silence the naysayer's at Cog Hill and post four rounds of consistently, low-scoring golf? Or, will Anthony Kim seek retribution for being overlooked for the Ryder Cup Team and finally produce like he did before his injury?

    Who do you think is a legitimate contender at the BMW Championship?