CHASKA, Minn. — I’ll be stunned if Tiger Woods doesn’t win the PGA Championship, and I’ve got a feeling it’s not going to be all that close. (I’m not jumping on the Tiger bandwagon; through 70 PGA Tour victories, I’ve never gotten off.)
Woods has only had three major-less seasons since he turned pro in 1997, and his game seems honed to a fine edge. Last weekend’s 65-65 finish gave him his seventh career win at Firestone, and he seemed to be in complete control of the ball for most of the final two rounds. Historically, it’s been a pretty easy call to make — when Tiger plays near his best, he wins. It’s as simple as that. He’s won five times this year, including four of his last six appearances. At what point do you acknowledge that whatever he’s doing, it’s working?
Hazeltine is very similar to Firestone, a course Woods practically owns, and he has history in Chaska he’d like to erase. In 2002, Rich Beem played out of his mind to beat Woods in the PGA Championship here. This week has Tiger Woods and major championship No. 15 stamped all over it. For fun, though, here’s a quick look at who else could be a contender.
The Spoiler: Stewart Cink The most successful Twitterer on the PGA Tour has clearly raised his game a level, and not just because he ruined a story for the ages by denying 59-year-old Tom Watson a sixth British Open title. He’s playing well, and he’s playing with confidence, something he hasn’t always been loaded with. Maybe you noticed Cink made a run at Woods and Harrington last week at Firestone? Watch him hit an iron shot this week. His swing is more elegant and efficient than he gets credit for. He’s coming into his prime, it appears.
The Toiler: Miguel Angel Jimenez He would go unnoticed in America if not for his fashionable ponytail, sometimes dyed an unnatural shade of red. Known as the Mechanic, Jimenez is an underrated player. He’s a good ballstriker who has rounded into form lately. Don’t be shocked to see him on the leaderboard.
The Avenger: Justin Leonard Forget about Hazeltine’s length (7,674 yards). It’s still a second-shot golf course. And if the par-5 holes prove to be unreachable in two for even the long hitters, then they’ll be wedge contests, and that favors the shorter players. That would include Leonard, who took a three-shot lead into Sunday’s final round at the ’02 PGA and had an uncharacteristic meltdown. And Leonard, a former British Open champ, has been piling up top-15 finishes this year.
The Other Avenger: Luke Donald He fits into a category similar to Leonard, but for a different reason. What’s he got to avenge? Well, a story a few weeks ago in Britain decided that too many European golfers are suffering from “Luke Donald disease.” That is, they seem to be big stars who are happy with their wealth despite not really having won all that much. It’s a little thing, and Tour players usually ignore media slights, but this one may be different.
Dr. Feelgood: Phil Mickelson The biggest potential story this week — sorry, Tiger — would be Mickelson playing his way into the mix. It’s been a tough summer for the Mickelsons, with Phil’s wife and mother both battling breast cancer. Phil is always a fan favorite, and a few good rounds would inspire national support. A Mickelson win wouldn’t just be a sports story, it would be a page-one story. One other note: Phil finished tied for 59th in Memphis after some time off and then could’ve-should’ve won the U.S. Open at Bethpage the next week. After missing all of July to be with his family, Phil returned last week at Firestone and tied for 58th. Coincidence?
The Spoiler Jr.: Lucas Glover No one accused Glover of ruining the U.S. Open because the two big-name contenders, Mickelson and David Duval, beat themselves with late bogeys. Glover has played some good tournaments in the wake of his Open win, including a fifth at the AT&T National hosted by Tiger, but has an Open champion ever gotten less publicity for his victory? Maybe Angel Cabrera after Oakmont in ’07. I like Glover’s game and his attitude and his approach. He could be this week’s Rich Beem.
The Wild Card: John Daly In 1991 at Crooked Stick, he came out of nowhere as the ninth alternate to win the PGA. He’s back and wearing crazy-loud slacks while saying he’s cut back on his wild side. Could Daly do it again? No. Not this week. But in those outfits, he’ll be hard to miss.