Can Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia challenge a surging Rory McIlroy at the PGA Championship?

Can Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia challenge a surging Rory McIlroy at the PGA Championship?

Rory McIlroy ascended to the World No. 1 Ranking on the strength of back-to-back wins at the British Open and WGC-Bridgestone.
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Louis Oosthuizen stepped up to the par-5 10th hole and won Tuesday’s long-drive contest — a revived side show at this week’s 96th PGA Championship at Valhalla — with a shot of 340 yards. As was the case 50 years ago, the winner received a money clip.

What do you get for consistently hitting the best drives when it counts, Thursday through Sunday? You’d better ask Rory McIlroy.

“I think shortening my golf swing a little bit with the driver has definitely helped giving me more control,” McIlroy said on Tuesday. “When the backswing got a little bit too long, I dropped it too much on the inside and I attack it from the inside and I would always hit the draw shot. Now I'm very comfortable hitting a straight shot or hitting it left to right. I hit a lot of tee shots [at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational] last week left to right, and that's when I know I'm swinging it well, when I can get it back down on the plane and I'm comfortable hitting that left-to-right shot.” 

Coming off back-to-back wins at the British and the Bridgestone, McIlroy, 25, is the favorite to win again at the PGA. And with three major titles already under his belt, he’s making Jack Nicklaus’s vaunted career majors total (18) look anything but untouchable in the post-Tiger era.

“I think as long as he continues to keep playing to his strength, he's going to be making birdies and winning tournaments,” Phil Mickelson said. “He's just a very good talent. We've been waiting a year, year and a half now for it to turn, and it's really turned for him. And now everything is clicking and firing, and he's tough to beat.”

“If you see a Rory McIlroy drive it like he can drive it and he's flipping those short irons into these holes, he can bust loose and shoot a low round here,” said Kenny Perry, who lost in a playoff at the 1996 PGA (to Mark Brooks at Valhalla) and is playing on a special exemption this week.

As for the tournament within the tournament, the race to make captain Tom Watson’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, the PGA Championship will (as usual) afford players one last chance to qualify on points. Among those on the outside looking in are Mickelson, Keegan Bradley and Zach Johnson. All who fail to crack the top nine will hope to earn one of the captain’s three picks. Watson will reveal those selections on Sept. 2

Rain is in the forecast, and that might play right into McIlroy’s hands. His towering drives stop dead in soaked fairways, leaving him short irons from juicy lies into receptive greens.

“I feel like the guys that hit the ball high and soft have a distinct advantage,” Mickelson said, “because you're hitting to a small section of the green, everybody is. And the quicker you get the ball stopped, the more margin of error you have; something I noticed [on Tuesday] is that there are very few half shots. Most every shot into the green is a full shot, bringing it in as high and as soft as you can.”

McIlroy led last week’s rain-delayed Bridgestone at 335 yards per drive, 35 more than the field average. He won the 2011 U.S. Open at rain-soaked Congressional by eight shots. He won this year’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth on a soft course. He should have his caddie break an irrigation line and flood every course he plays, like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. (“Looks like we got ourselves a natural disaster.”)

To look at McIlroy today you might think very little changed since he won the 2012 PGA, but of course everything has changed, from his equipment to his management setup to his relationship status to where he rests his head at night. All that change took a toll. Less than a month ago, heading into the British, Paul Lawrie was talking about how the game was ruled by committee. One week it was Bubba Watson, and then it was Adam Scott or Jason Dufner or Martin Kaymer. But now McIlroy, who on Monday returned to the top of the World Ranking, is the 5-to-1 favorite to win this PGA, and the only question is who, if anyone, can stop him.

“And historically, the PGA Championship has probably been my best major,” McIlroy pointed out helpfully, noting his handful of top 10s in addition to his gaudy, eight-stroke victory at the 2012 PGA at Kiawah.

Sergio Garcia has eight top 10s in 12 PGA Tour starts this year, with a solo second last week and a tie for second at the British Open. But even when he stepped to the 1st tee at Firestone on Sunday with a three-shot edge, Garcia seemed to be behind already. McIlroy opened with three consecutive birdies and won by two.

Tiger Woods, who withdrew from the Bridgestone during the final round with back spasms, arrived on the course for a 2 p.m. practice round Tuesday, but he seems unlikely to complete 72 holes at Valhalla, much less win. Will he play? The PGA of America sent out this release late on Tuesday:

“The deadline for registering for the 2014 PGA Championship was 5:00 p.m. (EDT) Tuesday, unless a player notified the PGA of America that he would be registering late. Any player who notified the PGA has up until his tee time in the opening round to register.”

(Woods’ tee time is 8:35 a.m. on Thursday, when he is scheduled to go off the 10th tee with Mickelson and Padraig Harrington.)

Scott finished fifth at last year’s PGA at Oak Hill, 11th at the 2012 PGA and seventh at the 2011 PGA at Atlanta Athletic Club. Hey, Adam, would a second or third be good enough this week?

“Well, not really, no,” he said.

Mickelson, 44, is coming off a 10-birdie final-round 62 at Firestone, a performance that alas only left him in 15th place. The five-time major winner is still seeking his first top 10 of 2014.

Rickie Fowler, who tied for eighth at the Bridgestone, tied for second at both the British and U.S. Open and tied for fifth at the Masters. Fowler, too, is 25. He is likeable and telegenic, and his recently rebuilt swing, under super-coach Butch Harmon, continues to yield huge dividends. Fowler beat McIlroy and D.A. Points in a playoff at the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship, but so much has changed. Is the popular American, at his best, good enough to make McIlroy question his young reign? Is anyone?

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