— Dustin Johnson
The first time the PGA of America planted its pride and joy at Whistling Straits in 2004, DJ was an unknown 20-year-old navigating the college ranks at Coastal Carolina, seven miles from his stomping grounds in Myrtle Beach. For the geographical similarities alone, it's no surprise that he's triumphed twice at Pebble Beach, and played in the final group of this year's U.S. Open at the same iconic venue. Yes, the shoreline of Lake Michigan will also evoke images of either coast where he maintains comfort zones, so that doesn't hurt, but he could manhandle the course with his game. He's third on tour in distance off the tee, 38th in greens hit, 26th in greens hit from lies off the fairway and a surprising sixth in birdies or better on par 3s.
Already a five-time winner on the European Tour, the German is six months younger than Dustin Johnson. And I make that comparison because the two have similar games. Kaymer hits more fairways and ranks inside the top 25 in distance on his circuit, and he's a better putter. Since winning at the 7,500-yard Abu Dhabi Golf Club in January, Kaymer has posted five top 10s, including a T3 at the CA Championship, T8 at the U.S. Open and T7 at the British Open. He also took four weeks off after the Masters to have plates and screws removed from his right foot following last year's go-kart accident. The German is trying to become the first from mainland Europe to win this major, and just the second from the continent (Padraig Harrington, 2008).
The 21-year-old enters the week as the eighth-ranked golfer in the world, and this is already his ninth start in a major. He placed a career-best T3 at Hazeltine last year. The wunderkind claimed his first PGA Tour victory at this year's Quail Hollow Championship, two days before his birthday. By most accounts, he's a level-headed kid, but by all accounts, he has the game to be the No. 1 golfer in the world, which is all but an inevitability. His youth precludes years of bad habits, but it has also prevented consistency vis-a-vis experience while putting. He's easily long enough and stripes his irons like a man 10 years his senior.
If there is a mold for the perfect profile of what it will take to bring Whistling Straits to its knees, it hasn't been cast yet, but he's probably left-handed. No one golfer hits it straight enough and far enough, but the longest hitters can club down. Mickelson employed a shorter and heavier shaft in his driver at Firestone. The theory is that his tee ball will find the short grass more often, albeit with a reduction of distance. Given the length from which he starts, it sets up as a potent game plan for the PGA. En route to a T6 here in 2004, he stepped onto the tee box at the 72nd hole needing a birdie to get into the playoff. He rebounded at Baltusrol the following year for his lone victory in this major.
The Wisconsin native is getting a second chance. And a surreal one at that. He didn't qualify for the PGA Championship in 2004. At the time, he was in the middle of his career nadir that lasted three years. As he prepares for this year's edition as a 43-year-old, two-time Comeback Player of the Year since, he's fourth in the world ranking. One of four multiple winners on the PGA Tour this year -- with a victory on each side of a clavicle injury -- he carded a 60 and a 62 en route to a successful title defense at the John Deere Classic a month ago. He sits 24th on Tour in fairways hit, sixth in putting and first in scrambling beyond 30 yards. There's zero doubt that he'll have the home crowd in his back pocket, and he might never find himself in a better position to claim his first major championship.
After missing last year's edition at Hazeltine because of a torn interior oblique muscle, he returned with minimal buzz until posting a T5 in Qatar at the end of January. Three weeks later, Camilo Villegas gifted him a pass into the final of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, which Casey lost for the second straight year (this time, to a red-hot Ian Poulter). Since then, he has posted three top 10s, but hasn't entered the mainstream consciousness as much as you might expect of the world's ninth-ranked golfer. Yet, his game is up for the task. Casey is 14th on the PGA Tour in greens hit, 23rd in putting and third in the all-around. Now 33, he also has the moxie of a wily veteran.
Now 32, the Englishman is in his prime, and he's playing like it this year. After four early top 10s in the U.S., including a runner-up to Steve Stricker at Riviera, he posted three consecutive top 3s in Europe, including a victory in Madrid. A T47 at the U.S. Open proved to be nothing more than a speed bump, as he followed with a pair of T11s (including the British Open) and a solo third at the Canadian Open. You can trace his success to what might be the best short game in the world right now, as he currently leads the PGA Tour in sand saves, scrambling, scrambling from the rough and putting inside five feet.
Despite a pair of victories in 2010, he wouldn't have been considered a threat at Whistling Straits three weeks ago. That's because he was leaving St. Andrews with a third consecutive weekend off after missing the cut, and fourth of his previous five. Only a solo third at Pebble Beach has saved one of the worst summers of his career, notwithstanding his knee injury in July 2005. If anything, the effort at the U.S. Open proves that his game can return at any time. Els currently leads the PGA Tour in scoring average; he's 25th in greens hit and manages one of the best games around the greens his generation has seen. He also finished T4 at Whistling Straits in 2004.
A strong showing at the Bridgestone Invitational moved him up the board. Long one of the grittiest competitors on the most difficult courses anywhere, the two-time U.S. Open champion missed the 2004 PGA because of a fractured pelvis while jet skiing in Barbados. Silly golf injuries. Earlier this year, he broke a toe, and then a finger, the aggregate impact of which kept him outside the ropes for nine weeks. Since returning, he has posted two top 10s, and has seven on the season to co-lead the PGA Tour. He'll never knock your socks off with his emotion. In fact, go ahead and call him The Minimizer, if not for the stoicism, for the fact that avoids making critical mistakes. Goosen ranks 13th on Tour in total driving and 10th in bogey avoidance.
As always, the 30-year-old Aussie lives and dies with his putter. He ranks ninth on the PGA Tour in greens in regulation, but near the bottom once he steps foot on them. It's an aggravating call since he's an equal threat to contend and miss the cut, although he does lean toward the latter. A strong performance at Firestone has him trending in the right direction, however, and he placed T9 at Whistling Straits in 2004. It's one of the few major championship sites at which he has had some success. In 38 previous starts in the majors, Scott has just four top 10s. Remarkably, if you include his worldwide victories, he has won at least once in every year since 2001. That includes seven in the U.S.
Thoroughly benefited by a slot in the late-early draw at St. Andrews, the British Open champion avoided the media onslaught after his second round. He then proved his mettle with a third-round 69, just one of 11 scores in the 60s that day, and then enjoyed what was a pedestrian round of golf (71) at the home of the game on Sunday to win by seven. He chased the victory with a T4 at the Scandinavian Masters the next week, but let's just say the Stockholm field couldn't hold a candle to Scotland's yard. He'll need to validate the breakthrough in even conditions before he is considered a regular threat in the biggest events.
Whistling Straits should bring back some great memories for the now 47-year-old Fijian. His playoff victory over Chris DiMarco and Justin Leonard was his fifth of nine titles on the PGA Tour that year. He swept the awards, including the PGA of America's Player of the Year. His '04 season earnings of $10.9 million remains the Tour record. Fast forward to the present and Singh is winless since taking the first two stops en route to claiming the FedExCup in 2008. He has plummeted to 72nd in the world ranking, and has just two top 10s in over 12 months. While knee and back injuries have slowed him, he's simply no longer "the best putter in the world." And, wow, does it show.
Despite his swagger, flare and fanfare, the Colombian has earned an underground reputation as a meat-and-potatoes grinder. The third side of that coin reveals a streaky tendency, one that is more likely to cast self-doubts than shadows over his nearest pursuers. Indeed, Villegas has been struggling mightily with his putting. He rarely misses a cut, but he has gone four events worldwide without a top 40 either. His sand game and scrambling overall is very average. Guys don't find their games in major championships.
Sure, he may technically be the world's top-ranked golfer, but he has earned fewer points this year than anyone else in the top 23. For all intents and purposes, he's a man on an island in a hurricane with no shelter and no visible way home. Given his forgettable result (T23) at his favorite golf course, St. Andrews, and his incredible fade at the Bridgestone Invitational, where he has seven wins, he has now reached the tipping point of failed expectations. The aura is gone. He's not a long shot; he has no shot.
Since a victory on the OneAsia Tour in April, the defending champion has burned out. He has missed the cut in four of his last seven starts and hasn't posted a top 20 in the U.S. since the Masters (T8). And it's not unexpected, given his whirlwind travels at the end of 2009 that would have made Gary Player blush. Plus, he's still adapting to his new cachet as a major champion. When Louis Oosthuizen secured the British Open, the four reigning major champions represented different continents. Yang remains Asia's highest-ranked golfer at 30th, but fellow South Korean K.J. Choi stands the better chance of gripping the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday.