From long-shot Phil Mickelson to revitalized Rory McIlroy to sentimental pick Lee Westwood, possibilities abound for Kiawah
No matter who wins the PGA Championship next week at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, history is going to be made.
But use your imagination a little. Who could win this PGA that would raise your golf temperature a couple of degrees? (Besides Tiger Woods, who isn’t playing. That’s using too much imagination.)
We ultimately might remember this PGA for a wild finish or a playoff or a heroic walk-off shot, or maybe even a runaway victory similar to what Rory McIlroy enjoyed at this same course in the 2012 PGA, but not all winners are created equal.
Here’s my list of the leading possibilities for a potential absolutely fabulous winner …
1. Phil Mickelson. No PGA victory would resonate louder than one by Mickelson. OK, he won at Pebble Beach two years ago and was third at Pebble and added a runner-up finish in Memphis last year. The latter are the only two top-20 finishes he has posted in the past two seasons on the PGA Tour. So, he’s still as unpredictable as ever. He tends to win when least expected, and boy, that would be now. At one month shy of 51, he would surpass Julius Boros as golf’s oldest major champion. Boros was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA. Plus, with Tiger Woods on the sidelines, possibly permanently, Mickelson is what remains of the Dynamic Duo that has carried golf since the mid-1990s. With Batman out, Robin is our next biggest name. A Mickelson victory would be his sixth major title, tying Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo. That’s strong company. Does Mickelson still have some magic? Well, he did open the recent Wells Fargo Championship with a stunning 7-under 64. Then he shot 14 over during the next three rounds. Lefty is a long shot. Fabmeter rating: 9.9 (out of 10). Reality check (likelihood): 1.1 (out of 10).
2. Rory McIlroy. The Wells Fargo Championship was subtitled, “How Rory Got His Groove Back.” McIlroy, 32, hadn’t won in 18 months and hadn’t made a cut in two months before some recent swing changes paid off with a victory. The Northern Irishman is Europe’s biggest name, and he’s fairly popular in the U.S., too. Nobody thought the last of McIlroy’s major titles, the 2014 PGA Championship, conceivably could be his last major title, but he’s in a seven-year drought. A victory next week would launch Rory 2.0 and possibly start a second run of majors for him and his revamped game. That would be big, because golf is looking to fill the void left by Tiger Woods’ car accident, and Cameron Smith’s mullet isn’t going to get that job done. Fabmeter rating: 9.5. Reality check: 9.4.
3. Bryson DeChambeau. Your reigning U.S. Open champion looked ready to run the tables after stomping Winged Foot to death with his big drives in September. That looks less likely now as he’s still wiping the egg off his face after saying par at Augusta National was 67 for him, right before it kicked his butt in November and again in April. The “Mad Scientist” has but one major championship, yet his Happy Gilmore-length drives and his unusual methods have turned him into golf’s most talked-about player not named Tiger and its new top box-office draw. Golf runs better with a clear King of the Hill, and DeChambeau would be a colorful one. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the Ocean Course panders to big hitters, and DeChambeau (or DeChambeau-flex, Chamu or The Incredible Bulk, whichever nickname you like) is the biggest. Fabmeter rating: 9.2. Reality check: 9.4.
4. Jordan Spieth. Nothing to see here, people, just a guy potentially finishing off the career Grand Slam, so move along, keep moving, folks… The last player to slam did it so easily and quickly (Woods, of course, in 2000) that most of us forget how rare and difficult this feat is. Spieth shot across 2015 like a comet and already had amassed Hall of Fame credentials by age 25. The thoughtful, likable Texan has won three majors and needs just a PGA Championship to fill his slam hand. He also could use a major to strengthen his bid to make another Ryder Cup team. He ended a 3½-year drought by winning the Valero Texas Open last month and is starting to look like his old self. Spieth is a brand name and would be a popular champion. Fabmeter rating: 9.0. Reality check: 8.5.
5. Rickie Fowler. When the Players Championship tried out power pairings a few years ago, the guy who tagged along with Woods and Mickelson as golf’s third biggest name was … Fowler. He’s still popular with the public but has struggled with his game for the past year or two. Well, he seemingly invented the color orange, and he has more TV commercials than any other player despite only five PGA Tour victories at age 32 and no major championships. He didn’t qualify for the Masters and got into the PGA Championship only by special exemption because he was a member of the 2018 Ryder Cup team. So, he’s a popular Cinderella story on every front. Fabmeter rating: 8.9. Reality check: 2.8.
6. Lee Westwood. After all these years, Westwood has become a sentimental favorite, even in the U.S. The Englishman, who turned 48 last month, had fans pulling for him as the underdog when he made impressive runs at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Players Championship. With 19 career top-10s in majors, he has earned the title of best player never to have won a major. Flipping that on its ear at this PGA would be a story that the TV audience and the media would relish. The European Ryder Cup team will follow where he leads it in September. Fabmeter rating: 8.7. Reality check: 3.0.
7. Dustin Johnson. He should be the favorite son of this PGA, because he grew up in Columbia, S.C., and attended Coastal Carolina University near Myrtle Beach. But his talents far outstrip his fan following. He has won two majors, and coulda-shoulda-woulda won three or four more, yet he doesn’t connect with the public because he doesn’t run his mouth, doesn’t pump his fist or engage in other theatrics. All he does is make golf look uncommonly easy, and then he’s typically matter-of-fact about how he won. He turns 37 next month, and that Masters victory in November made it look as if he’s in the sweet spot of his career. He easily could reel off five more major victories in the next few years. Or he could go ride his Jet Ski; we don’t know. Fabmeter rating: 7.2. Reality check: 9.0.
8. Hideki Matsuyama. The shortest ride to becoming a Big Deal in pro golf is to win the Masters. Japan’s Matsuyama did that last month, which makes him a legit person of interest in this PGA. After all, he’s the only guy with a chance at this year’s Grand Slam. American fans knew little about him before the Masters, even though Matsuyama had won back-to-back in Phoenix and once captured a Memorial Tournament. Blame it on the language barrier. His Masters play was impressive, and his caddie’s respectful bow to the course after returning the flagstick to the cup after his player’s win in Augusta won both men fan followings. When Matsuyama plays in this PGA now, at least some will pay attention. FabMeter rating: 6.6. Reality check: 7.5.
9. Brooks Koepka. The media didn’t initially know what to make of Koepka when he racked up four major victories in three years, including back-to-back titles in the U.S. Open and PGA, with his take-no-prisoners approach. Koepka’s goal of reaching double figures in major-championship victories quickly turned from unlikely boast into doable reality. Then, he injured his left knee, and more recently, he hurt the right knee. The hope is that he hasn’t messed up his lower body enough that he can’t regain the form he had when he was winning majors and looking tougher under pressure than anyone else, by far. But fame, money, complacency and physical ailments are real enemies for the game’s best. Fabmeter rating: 6.4. Reality check. 6.8.
10. Jon Rahm. A lot of players could fill this final spot, from Tony Finau (the best player who can’t quite find the key to winning) to England’s Tommy Fleetwood (still No. 1 in Best Hair) to Justin Thomas (a second major changes everything) to Will Zalatoris (surpassing Kermit Zarley as the greatest Z-named player), but this Spaniard has been penciled in for great things. A PGA victory would be big in Europe and reinforce his image as a guy whom an American would not want to face in Ryder Cup singles. He’s likable, he’s a new father and he shows his emotions on the course, both good and bad, which fans like. A win by Rahm would be no sorpresa (surprise). Fabmeter rating: 6.2. Reality check: 8.0.
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