KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – The season’s final major starts Thursday at a soft Ocean Course at Kiawah Island. Here are 5 Things you need to know on the eve of the year’s final major:
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1. STICKY SITUATION: The weather has been a big story at Kiawah Island. It has rained each day this week, making for soft conditions at the 7,676-yard Ocean Course, the longest course in major-championship history. There’s a 30 percent chance of rain for Thursday’s first round. The thermometer is expected to hit 90 degrees, with winds of 10-15 mph. A warm, breezy day could help dry the course a bit, but Rory McIlroy said the “quite sticky” paspalum grass would keep balls from bouncing too far, even in drier conditions.
“The ball, it doesn’t run very far when it pitches,” he said. “Even if you get the greens firm here, the ball is still going to grab on this grass.”
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2. TEE PARTY: The first round is scheduled to begin at 7:20 a.m. Thursday. Tiger Woods will tee off of No. 10 at 8:30 a.m. He’ll play alongside the past two PGA champions, Keegan Bradley and Martin Kaymer. Here are some other key groupings:
• 8 a.m. (No. 10): Darren Clarke, Ryo Ishikawa, Gary Woodland
• 8:10 a.m. (No. 10): Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jim Furyk
• 8:20 a.m. (No. 10): Jason Dufner, Paul Casey, Geoff Ogilvy
• 8:30 a.m. (No. 10): Keegan Bradley, Martin Kaymer, Tiger Woods
• 8:40 a.m. (No. 10): Louis Oosthuizen, Ian Poulter, Steve Stricker
• 8:50 a.m. (No. 10): Lee Westwood, Bill Haas, Angel Cabrera
• 1 p.m. (No. 1): Charl Schwartzel, Rickie Fowler, Nicolas Colsaerts
• 1:10 p.m. (No. 1): Hunter Mahan, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia
• 1:20 p.m. (No. 1): Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson, Ernie Els
• 1:30 p.m. (No. 1): Luke Donald, Brandt Snedeker, Zach Johnson
• 1:40 p.m. (No. 1): Padraig Harrington, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III
• 1:50 p.m. (No. 1): Scott Piercy, Graeme McDowell, Matt Kuchar
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3. GOOD OMEN? Rory McIlroy’s greatest moment at a major – his dominating victory at last year’s U.S. Open – came on a soft layout that was more forgiving than your typical major site. Could we see another good week from the world’s No. 3 player? “I think anyone has got a good chance this week,” McIlroy said, “and people that can hit it long and hit it in the fairway are going to have a great chance.”
McIlroy showed some signs of life at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. He finished fifth, his best showing since a runner-up finish at the Wells Fargo Championship in May.
He said he’d give himself a “B” grade for the year. He was the world’s best player at the start of 2012, finishing in the top five in six of his first seven starts, including a win at The Honda Classic, to ascend to No. 1 in the world. He’s cooled off since, and his major performances have been poor. He finished 40th at Augusta National after losing his swing on the weekend, missed the cut in his U.S. Open defense and was 60th at the Open Championship.
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4. BACK ON THE HORSE: Adam Scott is back at a major for the first time since his Open Championship collapse. His return to golf came last week at the WGC-Bridgestone, where he finished 45th.
Scott is trying to reflect positively on the Open Championship. He said he played the best golf of his career and proved to himself that he can win a major championship.
“I think probably it took last week, getting back out and playing, to kind of shake it off fully,” Scott said. “I’ve got one out of the system after the Open, and certainly great to have another crack at a major so soon after. That great play wasn’t that long ago, so it won’t be that hard for me to find again, I think.”
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5. OPEN AUDITION: Phil Mickelson is paired with Davis Love III, interesting because Mickelson is eighth on the United States’ Ryder Cup points list. The top eight at week’s end will earn spots on Love’s team at Medinah. Mickelson will make Love’s life easier if he can earn his way onto the team, but he’ll have to have a good week at Kiawah Island to do so. If Mickelson doesn’t make the team this week, it’s hard to imagine Love not selecting him for the team.
“It would be hard to play without him,” Love said. “He’s been such a big part of a lot of Ryder Cups in a row.”
Mickelson has struggled this summer, though. He withdrew from Memorial after a first-round 79, missed the cut at Greenbrier and the Open Championship and was 43rd in last week’s limited-field WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Two other Ryder Cup veterans – Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk – also seem to be safe bets to make the team one way or another. Love said he has been relying on Tiger Woods, Stricker and Furyk to help him make upcoming Ryder Cup decisions. It seems unlikely that Love would lean heavily on those players but not select Stricker or Furyk for the team. Love was especially bullish about Stricker. “Obviously if Steve Stricker was on the outside, we have a guy that likes to play with him,” Love said. “That’s a lock.” That’s because that “guy” is Tiger Woods.
A lot could change come Sunday, though. The PGA Championship, like the rest of this year’s majors, is worth double points. Every player in the top 37 could mathematically still crack the top eight this week.