- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
- 0 Shares
MEDINAH, Ill. -- Start waving the flag, my fellow Americans. This week's PGA Championship marks the final event in which U.S. players can earn points for next month's Ryder Cup, but there's reason to believe captain Tom Lehman's squad could look a little different come Sunday evening.
American-born players have won eight of the last 10 PGA titles (only two-time winner Vijay Singh has broken the streak) and 20 of the last 26. Expect a leaderboard littered with red, white and blue, and our pretournament top-20 ranking reflects that notion, with more than half of the list taken up by U.S. players.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. It is true; in this very space before last month's British Open, Woods was ranked sixth among his peers, with various factors cited. As you might have heard, he proceeded to win the darned tournament. Since then, it has been not-so-subtly intimated by both fans and those, uh, closer to Tiger that it might be unwise to wager against the 11-time major champion anytime in the near future. OK, OK, we get the picture. The guy is good. And he does tend to win these things pretty frequently.
2. Jim Furyk
If there's a player who won't back down to Tiger when the pressure makes things even hotter under the collar come Sunday afternoon, it's Furyk, who likely will be paired with Woods for four matches at The K Club. He's in the running for his fifth career top-five spot on the money list (currently in second place) and owns seven top-10 finishes in 11 career PGA Championship starts. If he needed even more karma, he'll have a healthy dose of fan support and good memories in Chicago, site of his lone major championship title (2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields).
Is Phil intimidated by Tiger? Is the U.S. Open collapse still fresh in his mind? Is he the Best Player To Have Won Only Three Majors? OK, perhaps none of those questions will be answered this week, but Mickelson's first two rounds -- during which he'll be paired with Woods and U.S. Open champ Geoff Ogilvy in the annual grouping of three major winners -- should give us a clear indication as to whether the defending champ will be in contention come Sunday afternoon. The safe bet says yes, as Mickelson will make mincemeat of the four par-5s.
4. Stewart Cink
Although many fans will recall the Tiger Woods/Sergio Garcia grudge match that took place in the final round at Medinah in 1999, most don't remember that Cink kept himself in the mix for much of that day, as well, eventually finishing with a share of third place. Absent from leaderboards for much of the season's first half, Cink owns four top-five finishes in his last nine starts, including a fifth-place run at last week's International. Although a victory next year at Southern Hills, site of his final-hole meltdown in the 2001 U.S. Open, would be sweet vindication, Cink is peaking at the right time on the right course for a possible top finish this week.
5. Adam Scott
It has been a season of coulda-dones and shoulda-beens for the supremely talented Aussie, who checks in at No. 6 on the World Ranking. Let's see ... second-place finishes at the Nissan and Barclays, thirds at the Wachovia and Byron Nelson, and top-25s seemingly everywhere else. The major question: Is Scott in title contender form? He hasn't competed anywhere since the British Open and hasn't set foot on a U.S.-based venue since the second week of July. Will that layoff hurt or help?
You might have a favorite golfer. Or perhaps you're simply cheering for some picks in your office pool. Whatever the case, root for Harrington this week. The Irishman announced that he will donate all earnings from the PGA to a breast cancer charity fund in the name of Darren Clarke's wife, Heather, who died of the illness earlier this week. Although Harrington certainly isn't expecting it, a Good Samaritan move like this deserves some good karma.
7. Luke Donald
The former All-American at Northwestern will be a sentimental pick in his current residence of Chicago, and for good reason, as he knows the nature of Midwest courses such as Medinah so well. Cynics will point out that he doesn't hit the ball long enough to contend on 7,561 yards, but his ability to shape shots should overcome any shortcomings off the tee. Although the Englishman has missed the cut in five of seven British Open starts, he plays well in U.S. majors, never having failed to reach the weekend in eight events.
Who is Chris DiMarco? A gritty, gutty, bulldoglike competitor who was the only player to hang with Woods in last year's Masters and this year's British Open? Or a talented underachiever who hasn't earned a PGA Tour victory in more than four full years? Well, he's actually both, but one thing is for sure: When DiMarco is chasing the lead in the final round of a major, it's tough to make him go away. There's no reason to think that won't be the case again this week.
9. Vijay Singh
Shhhh. Let's just keep this between us: Singh is having another outstanding year. No one's talking much about the 43-year-old, but he really hasn't seen much of a drop-off since that nine-win season of 2004. Check out these numbers: Excluding a four-tournament stretch in the middle of the year during which he finished between 36th and 48th each time, Singh has made 14 starts and finished in the top 25 in all but one of them. PGA setups seem to be right up his alley, too, as he won at Sahalee (1998) and Whistling Straits (2004) already in his career.
10. Tim Clark
Lil' Kim once topped the charts with her song, "Magic Stick" (and yes, we did need a Google search to find that information). Meanwhile, Lil' Tim is hoping his own magic stick -- the putter -- is working this week at Medinah. The 5-foot-7 dynamo speaks softly but carries a big stick; he wields a long putter that has helped him become one of the top short game masters in the world. He'd love for the score to remain closer to par, as the tougher the conditions, the better Clark usually fares.
11. Jerry Kelly
Two years ago, Kelly was on the verge of making the Ryder Cup team entering the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in his home state of Wisconsin. Instead, he missed the cut and missed the team, falling just outside the top 10. Fast-forward to this year's PGA and it's the same old scene, as Kelly is mired at 13th on the points list. Rather than build on the momentum of a second-place finish at the U.S. Bank Championship, Kelly skipped the Buick and International, in essence putting all his eggs in one basket at Medinah. He likely will need a top-five result to make the squad. Will the strategy work?
12. Scott Verplank
He doesn't drive the ball a long way, which certainly won't be beneficial on the longest venue in major history, but Verplank's a grinder who's trying to qualify for his second Ryder Cup team. A recent fourth-place finish at the Buick Open proved Verplank is finally past midseason injuries. If he's rolling the rock well -- and he usually is -- he'll hang around the leaderboard.
13. Sergio Garcia
It has been a long seven years since Garcia was sprinting and scissors-kicking his way around Medinah, falling one stroke short of Woods back in 1999. His youthful exuberance will be replayed on television broadcasts throughout the weekend, but the trip down memory lane could prove more harmful than helpful. Even if he's in contention during the weekend, Garcia will deal with plenty of questions about why he hasn't won the big one yet. One recommendation: Sergio, if you're on the leaderboard entering Sunday, for your own good, leave the yellow birdsuit at home.
14. Ernie Els
For all of Els' worldly success, he never seems to fare very well at the PGA, with just three top-10 finishes in 13 career starts. Then again, two of the three came in his most recent appearances (he missed last year's event with a knee injury), as only a missed putt on the final hole kept him from joining the trio of Singh, DiMarco and Justin Leonard in a playoff two years ago. Honestly, we're not sure what to make of Els right now; he owns seven top-25s in 13 PGA Tour starts this season but has yet to seriously contend for a title.
15. Ben Crane
In a combined five career starts at the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open, Crane has missed the cut five times and has only one finish inside the top 50 (a T-11 at Royal Liverpool last month). Meanwhile, in three career PGA appearances, he has reached the weekend -- and a top-50 finish -- every time, including a T-9 in 2004. Crane has what it takes to succeed in majors; namely, he's patient (remember that whole slow-as-a-turtle thing?) and a terrific putter (third in putting average last season).
16. Geoff Ogilvy
Just call him the third wheel. In the PGA of America's production of "Three's Company," Ogilvy will play the role of Jack Tripper, simply trying to grab attention from the beautiful pairing of Woods and Mickelson. Will he steal the scene? It wouldn't be the first time. Remember, Ogilvy might have benefited from the final-hole gaffes of Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie at Winged Foot, but he did win the Open fair and square, with the best aggregate score after four rounds. He's no fluky champion, either; Ogilvy will win a second major before many current top talents win a first.
17. Retief Goosen
It has been an inconsistent second half of the season for Goosen, who has struggled at times to find his swing. It has been an inconsistent PGA Championship career, too, with four missed cuts and only one top-20 finish in eight career starts at the year's final major. So why's he on this list at all? Because he's among the top ball strikers in the world and always a force on fast greens, two attributes that will serve him well at Medinah.
18. Zach Johnson
Is Johnson one of the top American up-and-coming players? Or is he an enigma, with so many good-but-not-great results of late? The tally of four top-five finishes this season shows flashes of brilliance, but in 10 career major starts, Johnson never has fared better than T-17, a disappointing mark for a player of his caliber. Now that he's 30, and in his third full season as a PGA Tour member, it's time to expect more solid results.
19. Shaun Micheel
Is that a silver DeLorean in the player parking lot? Maybe not, but you can be sure Micheel would like to go back to the future. The 2003 PGA Championship winner triumphed with a final-hole 7-iron from 175 yards that landed just inches from the pin -- arguably one of the greatest shots in major championship history -- but he has struggled to regain that form ever since. Speeding to another victory would be an accomplishment even Doc Brown could love.
20. Mike Small
We couldn't resist a nod to all those dreamers out there who are rooting for a nontraditional storybook finish this week. The University of Illinois men's golf coach is among 20 club pros -- yes, golf coaches are included in that lot -- in the field this week. Although a top-20 finish might sound a bit extreme, this Illini golfer does have a fightin' chance; he's a former PGA Tour member who recently won the Illinois State Open. Last year, a second-round 2-under 68 put Small in contention at Baltusrol before an eventual 76th-place finish.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com