Ranking the top 25 at the PGA
These prediction pieces don't mean much unless we review 'em after the fact, so allow me to offer my not-so-prophetic picks from the year's first three major championships: At the Masters, I picked Tiger Woods to win; he finished T-6. At the U.S. Open, I had Ian Poulter; he was T-18. And at the British Open, I went with Sergio Garcia; he came in T-38.
Angel Cabrera, Lucas Glover and Stewart Cink? Can't say any of those guys ranked high on the respective list for his major win. Then again, show me a person who picked each of them to win and I'll show you someone whose favorite club is a foot wedge. (For the record, I selected Cink to win the PGA a few years ago -- a pick that was clearly ahead of its time.)
Looking ahead to this week's rankings for the PGA Championship, a few things stand out regarding the setup at Hazeltine National Golf Club. At 7,674 yards, it will serve as the lengthiest course in major championship history, but there will also be a premium on accuracy, with various doglegs dotting this track. Driving the ball far and straight isn't an easy combo, but it could be a key to success this week.
Then again, let's not overstate the need for distance. Three of the four par-5 holes will play in excess of 600 yards on the scorecard, meaning they could be three-shot holes for even the biggest bombers in the field. This means there may actually be an advantage on these birdie opportunities for the better wedge players, those who are accustomed to laying up on longer holes.
With that in mind, the following is my prediction for this week's PGA Championship -- remember, if you simply want a rehashing of the best players, check the OWGR -- where we could see a third consecutive first-time major champion.
|1. Hunter Mahan||
Poll the PGA Tour constituency to find which player's driving skills others would like to own, and you likely won't find big basher Bubba Watson nor straight-arrow Fred Funk atop the vote. Instead, my guess is that Hunter Mahan would win this election in a landslide.
Currently ranked eighth on tour in total driving (which combines both distance and accuracy statistics), Mahan should be served well this week by his prowess off the tee. And he's no slouch in other areas, either; he finished in the top 10 at both the Masters and U.S. Open. Next stop: Winner's circle?
|2. Tiger Woods||
You say he's on a roll with wins at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and Buick Open in his past two starts. I say you're right ... and it doesn't matter.
Tiger is one of those rare players for whom momentum is an indiscernible notion. Sure, he gets on hot streaks like the current one, but each victory seems independent of the previous result. Case in point: His last start before those two wins, an MC at the British Open. Will Woods lift a fifth Wanamaker Trophy this week? It's quite possible, but not because he entered the event playing so well.
|Win, 1999, 2000, 2006, 2007|
|3. Camilo Villegas||
If Jim Furyk's swing can be referred to as an octopus trapped in a telephone booth -- or falling out of a tree, if you prefer that interesting bit of imagery -- then Villegas' current move should be called the "chicken-wing helicopter."
With an elbow jutting out at impact and an overhead twirl of the club culminating in his follow-through, Camilo may appear uncomfortable and look unconventional, but he is not unimpressive. Villegas has shined in late-season events the past two years -- witness his two playoff wins in '08 -- and the helicopter to further success may be ready to take off once again.
|4. Steve Stricker||
I was asked recently to name my current PGA Tour POYNT leader, which shouldn't be confused with the FedEx Cup race. No, this acronym stands for Player of the Year Not Tiger. If he'd made some more starts, Phil Mickelson would be right there. None of the three major champions has accomplished enough in his season to merit serious consideration.
So that leaves Stricker, with two wins and eight total top-10s. A rapidly improving wedge player who's always been one of the game's best putters, the Wisconsin native is primed for a title run. As if that wasn't enough, he plans to don some purple in front of the Minnesota galleries this week.
|5. Henrik Stenson||It took hours of poring through the record books, but I've been able to confirm that Stenson is the first player in history to strip down to his skivvies to hit a waterlogged shot at Doral, then win the Players Championship just two months later. Perhaps it says more about us than him that the former has left him more popular among the masses than the latter.
That said, we shouldn't forget his win at TPC Sawgrass, when he turned a bunched leaderboard on Sunday into his own private coronation. It's only a matter of time before he emulates that feat at a major. Let's just hope he's wearing pants when it happens.
|6. Phil Mickelson|| There is an eerie similarity between Mickelson's two return performances from lengthy layoffs due to wife Amy's breast cancer treatment during this year. Following a four-week absence after the Players Championship, he came back at the St. Jude Classic to finish T-59. It was hardly Mickelson's greatest display of golf, but it did propel him to a share of second place at the U.S. Open one week later.
Last week, after being away from competition for seven weeks, he again failed to contend over the final 36 holes, concluding in a share of 58th place. Don't read too much into the result, though. Just like last time, the fact that he got in some work in a competitive environment before a major week should be considered a step in the right direction.
|7. Sean O'Hair||
In seeking the best players under the age of 30, you can go with a career underachiever like Sergio Garcia or Adam Scott, a one-time major champ like Trevor Immelman or a rising star like Anthony Kim.
All are acceptable selections, but let's not leave O'Hair out of that mix, either. The 27-year-old is above average in every major aspect of the game. If there's one knock, it's that he's let a few tourneys get away from him down the stretch, such as this year's Arnold Palmer Invitational. Don't expect these growing pains to last forever.
|T-6, 2005, 2007|
|8. John Senden|| You know this Aussie as a guy who climbed the leaderboard for a while at Turnberry and owns one career PGA Tour victory ... if you know him at all. His peers, however, know the smooth-swinging Senden as a greens-in-regulation machine, the type of player who fares best when contending scores aren't well below par -- such as, yes, the majors.
Then again, he did go low two weeks ago at the Buick Open, getting to 17 under par in splitting a three-way tie for second. Don't be surprised if he stays hot this week.
|9. Anthony Kim|| Unlike TW, the man who fell to him in the final pairing at last month's AT&T National is very much a momentum player. And so it should provide a large dose of optimism that AK has finished in third place in two of his past three appearances on this continent.
If nothing else, Kim will provide some fireworks -- I still can't believe this guy made 11 birdies in a single round at Augusta National -- and if he can keep the big numbers to a minimum, expect to see his name on the leaderboard come Sunday afternoon.
|10. Lee Westwood|| He may still be kicking himself for three-putting the 72nd green at Turnberry -- including a missed 4-foot comebacker that would have later gotten him into a playoff -- but Westwood has proved himself as a viable major contender in recent years.
One measure of an elite player is the ability to climb the leaderboard on any type of venue; Westy has that ability, making him a strong candidate on varied courses.
|11. Robert Allenby||Consider it one of the most confounding stats around -- and proof of how difficult it is to win on the PGA Tour: Allenby has competed in 206 events since last winning a title at something called the Marconi Pennsylvania Classic in 2001. During that time, he has pulled 48 top-10 finishes and even claimed the Aussie Triple Crown in the winter of '05.
He's certainly talented enough to win out here more often, but it just hasn't happened for the 38-year-old. Then again, he's nearly a mortal lock to make the cut each week and a viable option to play consistent golf on the weekend for a strong finish on the final leaderboard.
|12. Kenny Perry||One year ago, Perry didn't qualify for the Masters, didn't try to qualify for the U.S. Open, qualified but didn't compete in the British, then played one round at Oakland Hills before bowing out due to an eye injury. This year, though, he's played in 'em all, having famously lost in a playoff at Augusta back in April, and should be considered among the front-runners to make it three straight first-time major winners. Having celebrated his 49th birthday on Monday, KP would break the record for oldest winner, set at this event by Julius Boros in 1968.||2, 1996|
|13. Zach Johnson||When Johnson won the Masters two years ago, he was buoyed by an 11-under-par mark on the par-5 holes at Augusta National. He didn't go the conventional route, either, instead using the thinking man's approach.
Employing what's been dubbed the Zach Attack, he chose to lay up on all 16 of these holes over the course of four rounds, producing a total of 11 birdies and five pars. A repeat performance at Hazeltine could very well mean a repeat result this week.
|14. Boo Weekley||Should this guy make a Sunday charge at Hazeltine, there will be more chants of "BOO!!!" than during a 45-3 Packers victory at the Metrodome.
Last year's Ryder Cup hero and every year's best quote on the PGA Tour, Weekley is more substance than style on the course. He flourished on the PGA of America's setup at Valhalla a year ago, so there's no reason to think he can't duplicate such an effort at Hazeltine. And in case you can't identify the players without a scorecard? He'll be the one in camouflage riding the pony down the fairway.
|15. Kevin Na||Don't look now, but this year's PGA Tour leader in top-10 finishes not named Eldrick is Na, who has produced eight so far, which ties him for second with Steve Stricker.
How about this for consistency: He's finished in the top 20 of an event in each month this season, save for June (though he was T-9 at Colonial on May 31). A mainstay on this circuit since he was 21, Na often dealt with injuries during the beginning of his pro career, but is finally coming into his own at the age of 25.
|16. Padraig Harrington||No, it wasn't right that Harrington (along with Woods in the final group) was put on the clock during Sunday's final round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, but it may have been symbolic of his play over the previous 50 weeks.
Since winning last year's PGA for his third major title in the past six, the Irishman failed to record a top-10 in 17 starts on the PGA Tour. He's now feeling better about his game and should have a little confidence heading into his title defense -- which may not be such a good thing for the eternal pessimist, who has claimed majors when not so impressed by his own game in the past.
|17. Lucas Glover||At least one person is keeping close tabs on the U.S. Open champ this week -- and that's Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples. Currently at 13th on the points list, Glover needs to move up at least three spots in order to automatically qualify for the team.
If not? His fate rests in the hands of Freddie, who could do a lot worse than naming the man who reigned at rainy Bethpage as one of his two captain's picks on Sept 8. Glover would love to save him the trouble by enjoying another stellar major performance at Hazeltine.
|18. Ian Poulter||He's going to win a big one and he's going to win a big one pretty soon, so I hesitate to leave Poulter out of the mix whenever I rank the field for a major.
He's got the game and the swagger to hold up down the stretch under the intense pressure of the spotlight -- thrives on it, really -- as shown during second-place finishes at last year's British Open and this year's Players Championship, plus the Ryder Cup, where he was easily Europe's best player at Valhalla.
|19. Ryuji Imada||When he was 14 years old, Imada moved from his native Japan to Tampa in hopes of becoming a professional golfer. That mission was accomplished long ago, and now he continues working toward loftier career goals.
Last year, Imada posted his first PGA Tour victory at the now-defunct AT&T Classic and though he suffered through some disappointing results early this season, he's shown signs of turning it around as of late.
|MC, 2007, 2008|
|20. David Toms||It's been eight years since Toms claimed his lone major title, winning the 2001 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club. As you may recall, during that tourney he was forced to lay up on the final hole, then confidently got up and down for par to avoid a playoff.
That type of clutch wedge game should come in handy this week, as he likely won't reach any of the three 600-plus-yard par-5s in two, but can still post some birdies.
|21. Chad Campbell||Quick: Which player finished runner-up to Angel Cabrera at the Masters? If you answered Kenny Perry, you're only partially correct, as Campbell shared second-place honors after missing a short par attempt on the first playoff hole, prompting this response from the understated Texan: "You know, you just don't feel very good when you lose the Masters in a playoff."
Ever since falling short to Shaun Micheel at Oak Hill six years ago, Campbell has struggled at the year's final major, but a T-11 at Firestone should have him in the right frame of mind going into this one.
|22. Mathew Goggin||He was "the other guy" in the final pairing at last month's British Open. While the world was captivated by Tom Watson's historic run at Turnberry, his playing partner stumbled out of the gates and never fully recovered, shooting a final-round 73 to finish T-5.
That experience now firmly under his belt, expect the veteran Aussie to parlay this into greater success in the future, rather than remaining simply the answer to a random trivia question regarding Old Tom.
|23. Justin Leonard||I'll admit it: When considering Leonard's chances at various major championships, I can often rely on the control-C key to get my point across. This time is no different.
If it rains and Hazeltine plays softer and longer than advertised, expect him to struggle. But if the wind kicks up and we find a fast and firm track, no one will be more pleased than Leonard, whose low ball flight belies his windswept Texas background.
|2, 1997, 2004|
|24. Shaun Micheel||If Tiger Woods hit that final 7-iron approach shot to within a few inches on the 72nd hole at Oak Hill a half-dozen years ago, it would live on as part of his legend; golf fans would tell their grandchildren about it 50 years from now.
Instead, one of the greatest clutch shots in major championship history is often regarded as either a fluke or forgotten altogether, but Micheel deserves more accolades for his accomplishment. He's since added a runner-up finish (at Medinah in 2006) to his PGA résumé and if you see the pattern, then the three-year itch may need to be scratched once again this week.
|25. Mike Small||There are 20 club pros in the field at Hazeltine -- this is their tournament, after all -- and I'd be remiss not to name one of 'em to this list.
The choice is Small, who is not only the men's golf coach at the University of Illinois, but won the PGA Club Pro Championship earlier this summer to cement his place in the PGA field. And really, it isn't out of the realm of possibility to see him finish ahead of some of the big boys. A former PGA Tour regular, he's played in each of the past four editions of this event, making the cut on two occasions.
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.
91st PGA CHAMPIONSHIP
The drama was gripping. The battle between Y.E. Yang and Tiger Woods compelling. So did Yang win the 91st PGA or did Tiger lose it? The truth lies somewhere in between. Gene WojciechowskiCourse: Hazeltine National Golf Club
Where: Chaska, Minn.
Yardage/Par: 7,674 yards, par-72
2009 champion: Y.E. Yang