Arrives in Minnesota as one of the hottest golfers without a summer victory, not that he hasn't had reasonable chances. Starting the final round one stroke off the lead at Loch Lomond, he took an uncharacteristically high 32 putts to fade to T-6. Later at Glen Abbey, he failed to bury a 6-footer for birdie on the first playoff hole and then lost one hole later. However, given the need to hit it long and manage the iron game this week, he's peaking at the perfect time.
The precocious swashbuckler should have loads of fun touring Hazeltine this week, carving shots and blasting drivers, but there's likely to be very little middle ground between being a headline or a footnote. Anyone that can bury 11 birdies in one round at Augusta National can play anywhere, but to post a 65 with those 11 birdies he's still learning how to score. Kim is playing much better on the whole recently, which explains why he's one of my contenders. And while there are better tracks to feature his aggressive style, Kim will not be overwhelmed or overmatched.
In one sense, Lefty has been preparing for Hazeltine since last year's stunning victory at the Colonial. Stepping on his driver like never before, he's gone in the opposite direction of logic since Winged Foot in 2006. When parlayed with his short game, that devil-may-care abandon is the kind of game plan that sets up shockingly well for this week's brute test. Moreover, with his personal life in a better and more controlled environment, it's all about the golf. Consider what he did at Bethpage Black two months ago when wife Amy's situation was a great unknown. This could be a special week for him, his fans and golf in general.
Hard to know how much of the role of local favorite he'll play (Tom Lehman and Cameron Beckman are the clubhouse leaders in that department), but the Wisconsin native certainly has the all-around talent to simply be THE favorite. With two wins this year and other close calls (Bob Hope, Northern Trust), the time for his first major title has never been better.
What Hazeltine lacks in classic value as compared to more traditional hosts of major championships, it more than makes up for in its challenge. Power and precision are paramount. Sound course management is critical. Shot-shaping on drives and approaches is commonplace. And distance control is of supreme importance. Of course, there's really only one guy that has the total package and has done it all before. Woods won't lose the PGA on the greens, he'd lose it off the tee. That has been his Achilles' heel of late, but he's not only after his 15th major title, he's back for redemption for what happened in 2002.
IN THE RUNNING
It would so much easier for the casual golf fan to hate his guts after absconding with victory that the storyline intended for Tom Watson in the land of the home of the game. Thing is, Cink is God-fearing, a family man and the most interesting man, er, followed golf Twitterer in the world. It's back to business as usual this week. The Turnberry antagonist becomes the latest since Craig Wood in 1941 to try to win his first two majors consecutively. Cink's length off the tee and distance control on approaches qualify him for the short list at Hazeltine regardless of what just happened.
Some 400 yards have been added to Hazeltine since Donald was crowned the NCAA individual champion here in 1999, and the track was considered long then. He hasn't been back since -- as he didn't start competing in this major until 2003 -- but he is unfazed by monster courses, evident when he placed T-3 at Medinah in 2006 when it played over 7,500 yards.
If there was an ongoing discussion about the greatest never to have won at least four majors, here you go. As usual, the backhanded compliment is that Els is still in the conversation. His most recent title came at the 2002 British, the last major before Hazeltine last hosted. This year, Els is benefited by the fact that this won't be a putting contest, which keeps him in the mix. He's very average by today's standard off the tee, but he can still knock down pins. The Big Easy's greatest test will be to put it all together for four rounds. After missed cuts at the Masters and U.S. Open this year, he finished T-8 at Turnberry.
His last top-15 finish in a PGA Championship was a solo 9th at Hazeltine in 2002. Yes, the course is longer today, but Furyk is the poster boy for all of the short hitters that make the most of the hand they're dealt. What's more is that his long irons are top-shelf grade, an absolute must for success this week. There's nothing scintillating to reveal or some surprising twist that changes his role as a leaderboard hog in the biggest events. None. Rather, like the Midwestern work ethic that embodies this tournament and at this venue, Furyk is a blue-collar guy that always brings a satchel full of sandwiches to work. And he's famished.
His reserved swagger has produced seven top-10s on the PGA Tour this year, but he's winless since the 2006 Sony Open. After claiming the 2001 PGA in Atlanta, his title defense at Hazeltine resulted in a missed cut. He has cashed in all six starts at the PGA since and is always a threat wherever he tees it up, primarily because he hits over three-quarters of his fairways and nearly every seven out of 10 greens in regulation. Like Furyk, Toms isn't the sexiest of the lot, but snipers are covert for a reason.
THE LONG SHOTS
Since jiggying away with the 2002 PGA at Hazeltine, evading Tiger Woods' furious charge on holes 69-72, Beem has missed five of six cuts in the PGA Championship and has played 2009 on conditional status, albeit with the ability to accept unlimited sponsor exemptions. He'll be hard-pressed to match his historic 7-wood to seven feet at the 11th hole this year. Dancing aside, that was Beem's signature move from '02, leading to the only eagle of the tournament at that hole. (Woods failed to hit the green in two in the group before Beem.) The 35-footer for birdie at the par-4 16th all but secured the Beemer's one and only major title.
FACT: Garcia is ranked fifth in the world despite having just one top-10 anywhere since January. FACT: That top-10 was a T-10 at the U.S. Open. FACT: His putting has not improved a single percentage point since last year, but he has still dropped from first to 58th in scoring average. FICTION: His chances of winning this tournament.
OK, so he finally showed signs of life at Firestone, but he still hasn't posted a top-10 since Abu Dhabi seven months ago. After missing five straight cuts entering his two-time title defense of the British, he faded to a forgettable T-65 at Turnberry. Frankly, he doesn't deserve this space, but he is the defending champ of this event.
The upstart lives and dies with where his approaches come to rest. He's a dreadful 191st on the PGA Tour in scrambling for par from the rough. Essentially, this equates to his up-and-down game. He must be dutifully aware of that, which only puts more pressure on his irons, which are first-rate. Expect him to attack at every chance, but he just might lead the field in short-sided approaches if he fails his class in course management.
So here we are. Perry will have played in all four majors for the first time since 2005. His playoff loss at the Masters was pseudo-avenged with a record-setting victory at the Travelers, but he's still on the outside looking into the trophy case of major championships, and he has yet to redeem himself from what happened at Valhalla in 1996. He turns 49 on Aug. 10, which could feel like the first day of the rest of his life, or it could serve as a cold reminder that his window of opportunity is closed for another year. If he doesn't already, he should have Tom Watson on speed dial.