Commentary

Subplots abound as 2008's final major gets set to tee off

Can Vijay Singh ride the momentum of his first WGC win into a third PGA Championship title? Which Ryder Cup hopefuls will punch their ticket to Valhalla in September? ESPN.com's Jason Sobel asks 18 questions (and gives 18 answers) heading into the 90th PGA Championship in the Weekly 18.

Originally Published: August 3, 2008
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

We commence this special PGA Championship preview edition of the Weekly 18 with a bonus question and a quick history lesson:

Will the year's final major ever go back to match play?

Nope. Nuh-uh. Fuhgeddaboutit. Fifty years after Dow Finsterwald won the inaugural PGA that was played as a stroke-play event (the first 39 were match-play format), the tourney is firmly entrenched as 72 holes, lowest score take all.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Kim
AP Photo/Nick WassAnthony Kim is among several players who have all but locked up one of the automatic spots on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. But most of who could join him at Valhalla in September will be decided this week in Michigan.
As for other questions entering this week's PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, the Weekly 18 tries to provide some weighty answers.

1. Will there be any easy Ryders?

Two years ago at Medinah, the top 10 on the U.S. Ryder Cup points list remained unchanged in the final tournament to determine automatic qualifying for the team. While there are two fewer roster spots available this time around (captain Paul Azinger will name four picks on Sept. 2), the standings have proven more volatile, with players able to make huge strides based on one strong result. That's especially true of this week's PGA Championship, where players will receive double points. That means a player on the very bottom of the standings could win the tourney and with it, a spot on the team.

The answer: While it would take a true dreamer to imagine going from nowhere to wearing the red, white and blue, bank on this: Due to that increased volatility, the current eight-man roster of Stewart Cink, Phil Mickelson, Kenny Perry, Jim Furyk, Anthony Kim, Justin Leonard, Boo Weekley and Steve Stricker won't remain intact by week's end.

2. So ... who will make a Ryder Cup run?

After contending that someone would lose their roster spot, we knew this question was coming. (Of course, we wrote the question, so there really aren't any surprises here.) As the eighth and final man currently on the team, Stricker's grasp is most tenuous heading into the week, and neither Leonard nor Weekley should be booking their flights to Louisville just yet, either. Never know how the numbers will play out, but a top-10 finish for any of those three should be more than enough to keep them in the loop.

The answer: Of those on the outside looking in, expect strong performances from Hunter Mahan (currently in 10th place), Brandt Snedeker (15th) and Chad Campbell (19th).

3. What will we remember about the course?

OK, let's get this straight: This week's venue is the South Course at Oakland Hills -- not Oak Hill ... or Oak Tree & or Cherry Hills. Got it? Good. The site has been host to two previous PGAs (1972 and '79), six U.S. Opens (1924, '37, '51, '61, '85 and '96) and the 2004 Ryder Cup. Known as "The Monster," its first head professional was none other than five-time PGA champion Walter Hagen and it currently stands 17th on Golf Digest's ranking of the country's greatest courses.

The answer: Another formidable if not fun track now back in the PGA of America's rotation, the course will only serve as the backdrop rather than providing major headlines itself.

4. Will '04 results mean anything?

Considering the last major championship held at Oakland Hills occurred pre-TWE (that would be pre-Tiger Woods era) -- at least the professional portion -- there's probably not a whole lot of intelligence we can garner from Steve Jones' one-stroke victory over Davis Love III and Tom Lehman back in 1996. But perhaps we can glean some information from the last Ryder Cup that was played in the U.S. Four years ago, only one American player (Chris DiMarco) owned a winning record for the week, while more than half of the European squad reached that mark, including Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood, each of whom finished 4-0-1 for the event.

The answer: This is a whole different ball game. Sure, it might be nice for some of the Euro players to find some happy flashbacks when they show up on site, but it won't necessarily affect the end result.

5. What will Phil do next?

Yes, we know we've used the same question for every pre-major championship edition of the Weekly 18 this year. Thanks for pointing it out, though. The ultimate "feel" player, Mickelson has been criticized lately for overpreparing for major championships. Not only did he make his usual week-before visit to Oakland Hills, strategizing and plotting his clubs for each shot, but he's been poring over statistical data from short game guru and former NASA physicist Dave Pelz in hopes of using the research to better his score. "Sometimes when we just play a course we realize we haven't used a certain club," Mickelson said. "Other times it'll be a computer program that we'll use to identify what element of the game is more important."

The answer: Just as his much-publicized move to Butch Harmon was followed by a big I-told-you-so after last year's Players Championship, at some point in the not-too-distant future this new philosophy will be proven successful, too.

Padraig Harrington
Stacpoole/US PRESSWIRENo European-born player has won the PGA Championship since 1930. Is reigning British Open champ Padraig Harrington up to the task? History suggests the Irishman won't be holding the Claret Jug and the Wanamaker Trophy at the same time this year.

6. Who's No. 3?

When Padraig Harrington won last month's British Open, he earned enough points to leap from 14th in the Official World Golf Ranking to third, behind only Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Depending on what the leaderboard entails come Sunday evening, there are probably close to two dozen players who could shoot past Harrington with a victory. What does it mean? Not a whole lot. Ask any player and he'll concede that the difference between third and, say, 10th or 15th is minimal, at best.

The answer: Five players (Steve Stricker, Adam Scott, Ernie Els, Geoff Ogilvy and Harrington) have held the No. 3 position in the past five months. While it may not matter much to them, it will be interesting to see whether anyone can claim a stable hold on the spot for the remainder of the season.

7. Will Singh whistle an encore tune?

It's been an up-and-down season for Vijay Singh, who turned 45 in February. He had a run of four top-five results in the year's second and third months, but hasn't seriously contended for a title since then. Until this past week, that is. How good was the Big Fijian at Firestone? He missed 10 putts of 8 feet or less ... and still won by a stroke. That's good news for a guy who already owns two career PGA Championship titles (1998 and 2004). The bad news? When asked why he's been so diligently practicing short putts, Vijay said, "Because I miss a lot of those. I'm very, very uncomfortable with 4- and 5-footers."

The answer: To find the last player who won the Bridgestone then captured the Wanamaker Trophy, we have to go all the way back to ... last year, when Tiger Woods pulled off the double. So at least a precedent has been set for Singh.

8. What's up with the Big Easy?

As we've written before, Ernie Els has more closely resembled the Big Enigma in recent months -- ever since winning the Honda Classic at the beginning of March. While he provided a similarly underwhelming result at this past week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, at least he offered a better explanation as to what's going on in his game. At Firestone, he ranked second in the field in greens in regulation (73.6 percent), while finishing T-68 in putts per round (30.25).

The answer: Swing issues take longer to recover from than putting woes, which come and go all the time. Expect Els to continue hitting the ball well, while a few more putts start to drop for him, too.

9. What should we expect from Perry?

It took until the fourth major of the season, but Kenny Perry is finally competing in one. The world's 16th-ranked player didn't qualify for the Masters, didn't try to qualify for the U.S. Open and didn't partake in the British Open, despite being qualified. But he enters the PGA as one of the hottest players around, with three victories in the past two months. Perry has made no bones about wanting to return to his old Kentucky home for the Ryder Cup at Valhalla in September, but now that he's a lock to make the squad, expect the short-term priorities to change a little bit.

The answer: In 17 previous PGA appearances, Perry has reached the weekend on 16 occasions. His best shot at victory came in 1996 when he lost in a playoff to Mark Brooks, but don't be surprised if the soon-to-be 48-year-old makes a bid at becoming the second-oldest to win a major.

10. How will Harrington follow up?

Just one month removed from his second major victory, Harrington is looking to match Woods (2000, '06) and Nick Price (1994) as the only players to win the final two major championships in the same season over the past half-century. He feels more prepared than a year ago. "I definitely was flat after winning," Harrington said prior to the Bridgestone, at which he finished T-20. "Gradually, hopefully, I'll come back this week and hopefully I should be in better shape come the PGA."

The answer: He may be in better shape, but Harrington has never been a great PGA player. Coming off his British Open win a year ago, he finished T-42. In nine career starts, he's never fared better than 17th.

11. What's the story, Rory?

Rory Sabbatini has played in every PGA Championship this decade with the following results: 77th-MC-MC-68th-MC-74th-MC-MC. That's, uh, not so good. Seems like ol' Rory is snakebitten at the year's final major; three years ago at Baltusrol, he opened 67-69 to climb the leaderboard -- only to follow with scores of 76-80 to finish five spots from the bottom. Battling through nagging injuries this year, Sabbo hasn't finished better than T-27 in 12 starts since January, which could translate into a perfect storm of futility at Oakland Hills.

The answer: We're not taking the bait. Sabbatini takes baby steps, finishing in 67th place, at the very least -- his best career result at the PGA.

12. Can Karlsson keep it up?

The player with the best cumulative results at the year's first three majors? It's none other than Robert Karlsson, who finished T-8 at the Masters, T-4 at the U.S. Open and T-7 at the British. In fact, the sweet-swinging Swede hasn't finished worse than 20th since March -- a streak that spans nine tournaments. Last year, nobody was top-10 at all four majors (Tiger Woods and Justin Rose both finished in the top-12 at each of them); Karlsson is the only one with a chance this time around.

The answer: Don't bet against him. Karlsson might be the best player most casual fans have never heard of, but they're going to start learning more about him very soon.

13. Is it time for a European winner?

The last European-born PGA champion was Tommy Armour in 1930. (He was a native of Scotland, but owned U.S. citizenship by the time of his victory.) The last time a pair of Europeans won back-to-back majors was in 1920. (Ted Ray won the U.S. Open; George Duncan won the British Open.) Suffice it to say, history certainly isn't on the side of the blokes from across the pond this week.

The answer: If it doesn't happen, it's won't be for a lack of candidates. Europeans make up 16 of the world's top 50 players, and only Luke Donald (wrist injury) is not in this week's field.

14. Time for a first-timer?

Woods isn't in the field, Mickelson has looked shaky in recent majors, Els seems like the ultimate enigma and Singh is starting to show his age. Doesn't it just feel like this week is set up for a first-time major winner? Before the law firm of Singh, Mickelson, Woods & Woods won the last four PGA titles, first-timers accounted for three in a row and 13 of the previous 16. Considering that 17 of the world's top 25 players have never claimed a major, there are plenty of possibilities.

The answer: Yes, but don't limit the previously major-less contenders to only those with respected pedigrees. The PGA has a long history of random, unpredictable winners.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesTiger Woods captured the U.S. Open with a torn ACL. Padraig Harrington clutched the Claret Jug with a sore wrist. And Trevor Immelman won the Masters months after having a benign tumor removed. So who's the injured player that will emerge to win the PGA?

15. Could the first-timer be a no-name?

For every Ben Hogan or Gary Player that "tamed the monster" (Hogan's words after winning in 1951), there's been a Cyril Walker or Steve Jones who triumphed at Oakland Hills. Couple that with the aforementioned fact that more unknown winners tend to pop up at the fourth major and we could certainly be in for a champion who isn't a household name anywhere but his own house.

The answer: If there's one thing we've learned covering major championship events, it's to never say never. There are favorites and underdogs entering the week, but they all start at the exact same place.

16. Where's the next Big Hurt?

Trevor Immelman underwent surgery to remove a benign tumor from his pancreas in December and won the Masters four months later. Tiger Woods hobbled and winced his way around Torrey Pines for five days, thanks to a torn ACL and double stress fracture in his leg and won the U.S. Open. Padraig Harrington suffered a wrist injury so painful that he didn't take part in the final two practice rounds at Royal Birkdale and won the British Open. Beware the injured golfer. Here's wondering whether some top contenders will be slamming fingers in car doors and intentionally stubbing their toes in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle.

The answer: Every top-level pro has something -- a tweaked back, a sore shoulder, a bum knee -- so if you want to get technical, sure, this week's winner may very well be "injured." But as for major physical ailments? The streak stops here.

17. Is there anybody out there?

It's the least prestigious of the four majors, the only one not on a "must-see" list for even the most casual of fans. The possibility of a Grand Slam was dismissed two months ago. The two-time defending champ isn't competing. Heck, even Greg Norman won't reprise his role as surprise contender. Toss in the fact that this week's PGA will be played opposite the Olympics and it's easy to wonder just what kind of interest the tournament will maintain.

The answer: Expect struggling numbers, ratings-wise, for the opening two rounds. A leaderboard topped by, say, Mickelson and Garcia will buoy weekend coverage. One led by Shaun Micheel or Rich Beem? Not so much.

18. How is the PGA different from the other three majors?

For this one, let's toss it over to Mickelson: "I think the identity of the PGA is that it doesn't have an ego as to what score should be. ... I think the players view the PGA Championship, because it's run by the PGA of America and everybody involved in the organization are professionals, I think that it is looked upon as being the most favorite setup and the most enjoyable challenge because it's always set up fairly."

The answer: Expect another "fair" setup this week -- and even though Oakland Hills will play to a par-70, the winning score will be well below those at Royal Birkdale (3-over), Torrey Pines (1-under) and possibly even Augusta National (8-under).

Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.