Our Jim McCabe reveals 10 players you need to watch this week at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course for the 94th PGA Championship – the year’s final major championship:
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My, how times have changed. A year ago on the eve of the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, barely anyone outside of the Vermont golf and ski community paid attention to this young man. OK, the St. John’s crowd knew him, and so did a sprinkling of golf fans in the Boston area. But mostly he was a PGA Tour rookie with promise and dreams – until he finished birdie, birdie, par to catch Jason Dufner, then win a playoff. Talk about the express route from lobby to penthouse. He joined Ben Curtis and Francis Ouimet as the only players to win the very first major in which they played, but the flavor to Bradley’s story is this: He is not a one-hit wonder. He’s a bona fide star, a fearless player who bounces back from bogey perhaps as well as anyone in the game. If the game at Kiawah is not only his title defense but an audition to see if he’s worthy of a captain’s pick for the upcoming Ryder Cup (he’s ninth in the standings, and only the top eight make it automatically), then bring it on. Pressure motivates this young man.
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A year later, you have to believe he’s better equipped to handle the situation that was improbably thrust upon him a year ago. There he was, just meandering his way along the demanding Atlanta Athletic Club when all of a sudden he stepped to the 15th tee and discovered he had a five-stroke lead. Now when you’ve never won a PGA Tour tournament, let alone a major, that’s a daunting task, and shockingly it fell apart. Dufner bogeyed 15, 16, and 17; Keegan Bradley birdied 16 and 17. Just like that, the five-stroke cushion was gone. But the greatest test of an athlete isn’t how he handles victory but how he learns from defeat. That’s why Dufner deserves as many gold stars as you’re willing to give. He has won twice in 2012, roared to No. 9 in the world rankings, and virtually has been cemented to leaderboards every week. So he’s quiet and might not be demonstrative or flashy; this is golf, not vaudeville.
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Should we dismiss his final nine holes at Royal Lytham & St. Annes as an aberration? Surely those birdie putts and the brilliant play in crunch time went against the recent MO that had been Els’ undoing in the major championships, so many golden opportunities wasted down the stretch at the Masters, the U.S. Open and the Open Championship. True, of course, only you have to always start with the fact that resiliency is a priceless commodity and one could argue that Els and Phil Mickelson have bottomless supplies of it. Els concedes the Claret Jug fell into his lap a few weeks ago, just as he knows he squandered chances to win the green jacket. But he never would have been in position to catch the Claret Jug had he given up or written himself off as had so many others. When he said he believes he can win a few more of these majors, the suggestion is, you take him seriously.
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While we’re on the topic of players coming from out of nowhere to win a major, meet this 24-year-old South African. He’s generated a bit of a buzz with three wins on the European circuit in 2012, but two tournaments were in South Africa and one was in China and none were exactly four-star fields. Give him credit, though. He has taken his game into the U.S. theater for cameo appearances and shown that there’s something there that deserves attention. Like so many of the young stars, Grace is very long, but he’s showing that he can handle the spotlight – like playing three days in a row next to Tiger Woods and outscoring the icon, as Grace did at the Bridgestone Invitational. Throw in the bonus of his native roots, because by now hopefully you realize that South Africans fare well in these majors.
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Not that anyone outside of a small circle of golf zealots was paying attention, but there was a serious competition played at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course. No, not the 1991 Ryder Cup. We know about that. We’re talking the 1997 World Cup where Colin Montgomerie was medalist. Now Monty is no longer a serious competitor, but Harrington is, and take note that he and Paul McGinley led Ireland to the coveted team title that year. It would be another 10 years before Harrington broke through to win a major, then he won two more quickly. His game has ridden a roller-coaster in recent years, but never his passion, never his commitment. He has shown glimmers of his old self, especially in the big events, where he’s gone T-8 (Masters), T-4 (U.S. Open), and T-39 (Open Championship) this season.
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Few players will be more comfortable in the environment than the tall and lanky American, who grew up in South Carolina. But like everyone else, he’ll be trying to figure out the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, because this is not where Johnson spent his time playing golf as a teenager or even post-college. Still, he’ll have a ton of fans, and even those South Carolinians who don’t know him will gravitate toward him. Maybe he won’t feel like Phil Mickelson in New York, but it’s hard to envision any player being looser and more at ease this week.
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Davis Love III
Why focus on a 48-year-old whose game is in the home stretch, to the point where he’s finished 72 holes just six times in 13 starts this season? Well, because he’ll always have a crowd around him, and if that gets you wondering why, the reason is simple: It’s Ryder Cup time and as U.S. captain, Love will generate vast interest from PGA of America officials, media types and even fellow players. Hard to believe he’ll have any time to focus on his game.
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If Tiger Woods is a one-man mystery dish these days, then what of the left-hander? It’s as if you expect Monty Hall to introduce him on the first tee and ask, “What’s behind door No. 1 today, Phil?” In a year in which he dazzled with a closing 64 while paired with Woods to win at Pebble Beach and then got into position to win the Masters, the incomparable Mickelson has left folks scratching their heads. In his last four starts on the PGA Tour, he has a WD, two MCs and a T-65 at the U.S. Open, a tournament that has always seemingly been his to win. There was no cut at the Bridgestone, so he got four days to try and sort things out before heading to the PGA Championship, a major in which he has teed it up every August since 2003. He’s won it once and been top 10 on eight other occasions, so it’s not like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Be patient, have faith, then sit and watch, because no one – and we mean no one – shifts from reverse into fourth gear as quickly and improbably as the left-hander.
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When was it that you last caught a view of this rising star? Was it on the 18th hole at The Olympic Club, making a devilish up-and-down to save par and ultimately win the U.S. Open? Or was it two weeks later when he led at Greenbrier, only to close with 73 and fade into a share of seventh? Both views tell a story of Simpson, who’ll turn 28 the day before he tees it up in just his sixth major. That’s right, he’s still a novice at these big-stage events, but goodness how he seems to have embraced them and learned how to play them. He’s got a win and two other strong efforts (T-14 at 2011 U.S. Open, T-16 at 2011 Open Championship) and like Dufner, he seems to be on every leaderboard. Now he’ll be teeing it up after having taken four weeks off to be at home with wife Dowd for the birth of their second child, but he’s a quick learner, remember?
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It’s a truism that bothers a lot of people, but he’s always the man to watch. Not for reasons of yesteryear – when he would dominate with near-flawless play – but because he’s such a mystery dish these days. He shows flashes of ball-striking genius, then struggles with the putter. Next day, he hits it all over the map, but scrambles brilliantly. Or, he might have it all going. Or, nothing will be connected. In other words, he’s like two dozen other great players in the field. The only thing is, he’s the only 14-time major champ teeing it up at Kiawah, so he’s sort of earned your attention, no?