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Six PGA Championship contenders, and four pretenders

Dustin Johnson
Andrew Redington/Getty Images
Dustin Johnson nearly won the PGA in 2010, but he was penalized for grounding his club in a bunker.

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- Anything could happen at Kiawah Island’s wild, contrived and mildly controversial Ocean Course, and it probably will.

Just taking the hour shuttle bus ride to the course Tuesday morning showed how unpredictable the weather can be. We drove through three absolute pounding downpours, which quit after five minutes. Three minutes later we were on a section of road where the pavement was dry and a policeman was directing traffic in shirtsleeves. I wanted to yell, “Hey, buddy, get a poncho on now while you still can!”

The Ocean Course is unique and challenging and awkward -- in other words, it's all Pete Dye.

Interesting, isn’t it, that it doesn’t have a long stroke-play tournament history? Its debut was the 1991 Ryder Cup, where players from both sides (but mostly the Americans) staggered home on the demanding closing holes. Other than the 2007 Senior PGA Championship, won by Denis Watson , and a pair of World Cup events, we don’t have much to go on.

(Related: Ocean Course among Best Public Courses in U.S.: 100-76 | 75-51 | 50-26 | 25-1)

Mr. Dye’s design has the big bunkers and artificial mounding and sprawling feel of his Whistling Straits course in Wisconsin, which has also hosted a pair of PGAs. Vijay Singh defeated Justin Leonard in a playoff in 2004 , and Martin Kaymer also won in a playoff against Bubba Watson in 2010. (That PGA might be best remembered for Dustin Johnson’s bunker penalty on 18.) Except for Leonard, they’re all big hitters.

That trend should continue here at the Ocean Course, which features some generous fairways and big, tiered greens. The course will be soft from all the rain, so this week should be a bomber’s paradise. Fill in the names of any long-ballers, and you’ve probably got yourself as good a pick as any. Robert Garrigus, Scott Piercy, Keegan Bradley (except he’s probably got an emotional hangover/letdown/high from his big Akron win), Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and the like.

Dye curiously built this would-be links course next to the ocean, but he raised the greens and blocked them with bunkers and hazards, so wind-cheating links-style shots can’t be played. You can only run a ball onto about three greens.

That said, it’s August in the Low Country, the doldrums. A few local residents have told me that the wind is typically down this time of year. The gusts that made the ’07 Senior PGA a less-than-festive event in the spring probably won’t be a factor this week. The forecast is for light breezes, and it shows a little lightning bolt for every day this week. I’m going to check with Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore, but I don’t think that’s good.

Even if the sun does come out and temperatures hover around 90, they’ll have to water the greens to keep them alive, so they won’t get rock hard, like a real British links. Expect standard American target golf.

With that backdrop, here’s a look at 10 players, some of them contenders and some of them possibly pretenders.

HOT STUFF
Louis Oosthuizen. Your former British Open champion, he of Masters double eagle fame, has sharpened his game of late. He played well last week in Akron and has surprising length considering his lack of size. When he won the Open at St. Andrews, it was quite windy, but he’s shown that he can play well anywhere. He was one miracle swing by Bubba Watson away from adding the Masters to his resume this year. Somehow, he still seems underrated.

Jason Dufner. The Duff is only middle-of-the-pack long, but he ranks among the Tour’s better iron players. You’re not going to make birdies on Pete Dye greens unless you hit it close. Dufner can do that. With two wins under his belt and some consistent finishes (like fourth at the U.S. Open), he may well rank among the favorites.

Rory McIlroy. Yeah, sure, Northern Ireland’s boy wonder has been off his game all summer, possibly distracted by the trappings of fame. But McIlroy excels at American-style golf. His U.S. Open win was on a Congressional course with soft fairways and soft greens. He hits it long and high, so he’s not a big fan of windy conditions. This is the year’s final major, so McIlroy knows he can turn an otherwise so-so year into a great one with a victory. He’s been working harder since his mid-summer lapse. The focus may return.

Adam Scott. We learned at Royal Lytham & St. Annes that Scott can play 68 great holes of golf in a major. He hits it long and is a very good iron player. His short game is streaky, and it’s clear that he doesn’t wield the long-shafted putter as well under pressure on Sundays. But Scott proved to himself, and probably everyone else, that he does have the game to win a major. He just might come to the last four holes and be so far ahead that no one, not even Ernie Els, can catch him.

Dustin Johnson. You can’t ignore this classic power-hitter whose climb has been stalled for a while. It’s almost a home game for him -- he’s from Myrtle Beach, just to the north of Kiawah -- and he’s used to the heat and humidity and grass. He could overpower this course.

Matt Kuchar. Kuchar was making a nice career out of top-10 finishes. Then he won the Players Championship this year and began to get our attention. The fact is, he plays well in big events. He finished T3 at the Masters and T9 at the British Open. Kooch would be near the top of your list of Best Players Who Haven’t Won a Major Yet. He’s got game.

THE COOLERS
Tiger Woods. You never rule out a 14-time major winner, and the wide fairways may make his unreliable driver more of a weapon than it’s been for a while. But still. Though he keeps showing signs of scoring better, there are disturbing signs that his progress isn’t as good as it appears. His short-iron play has been far below his former standards, and his putting has been less than stellar. If you saw him miss that two-footer on the final green Thursday in Akron, you’re still wondering what went wrong. His stance and setup were aimed left, but his stroke path went right. That indicates he’s still searching for the answer to his putting woes and still experimenting.

Phil Mickelson. Like everyone else, Mickelson knows this is the last chance to do something important this year. Mickelson, however, has struggled with his game. He just doesn’t look like he feels 100% healthy, and he probably isn’t. He doesn’t use his arthritis as an excuse, but it seems reasonable that, at 42 , it’s much tougher for him to feel well for extended periods of time. That said, he’s made a career out of playing well when least expected.

Bubba Watson. Bubba has shown a few signs of coming out of his post-Masters funk, but only a few. He shot a pair of 65s on the weekend to finish T2 in Hartford. After a good start at Lytham, he faded in the second and fourth rounds . The pattern we’ve seen with most first-time major winners in recent years is that it takes a while to recover from being thrown into the limelight. Bubba has played only six tournaments since the Masters, largely due to the adoption of a baby boy. Even though the course setup should play to his strengths, I don’t think he’s regained the mental focus he had in Augusta.

Lee Westwood. The Englishman seems to have gone off the boil. He tied for 10th at the U.S. Open after making a horrific double on the fifth hole in the final round at Olympic Club, but he tied for 45th at the British and posted a third-round 81 at Firestone . Can he shake that off at the Ocean Course? Maybe, but I doubt it. He won’t be playing out of many trees here, but his fine driving skills won’t be optimized at the Ocean Course, where everyone will be hitting fairways. It may be more of a putting contest, which is not his strength.

 

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