— TOP CONTENDERS
Dustin Johnson: It's not a return to the scene of the crime, but the object of his conviction remains the same. One year after grounding his club in the same sand shared by spectators at Whistling Straits, DJ won't have to worry about mistaking waste areas for bunkers on the Highlands Course at Atlanta Athletic Club, a parkland track technically located in Johns Creek, Ga., some 25 miles northeast of the state capital. Not that that detail or much else gets under his skin. If it does, he makes it impossible to tell. And therein lies his strength: He was so bothered by last year's twist of fate (and share of fifth place) that he went out and won three starts later at the BMW Championship. He hasn't hoisted any hardware since, but he's posted seven top 10s worldwide including runner-up finishes at Doral in March and Royal St. George's last month.
Rory McIlroy: In what might be his last start in a major before he rejoins the PGA Tour, the 22-year-old U.S. Open champion should flourish on this long, tight test. He missed only 10 greens in regulation en route to his record 16-under 268 and eight-stroke victory at Congressional. The rough on the Highlands Course will be penal, so his attack off the tee will require precision, but he's otherwise fearless. And what's most compelling about this budding superstar is the combination of his honesty and humility. He's made silly mistakes with his words of late, but hasn't blamed it on his youth, or his parents, or his life, or what many of his contemporaries are more likely to cite as excuses. Easily talented enough to win golf's Grand Slam, he might just turn the second of four tricks in Georgia.
Charl Schwartzel: Although he hasn't won since his late charge to steal the Masters, he hasn't failed to contend. In eight starts since, he has posted three top 10s, one of which was in a match play, but another was at the U.S. Open. (He shared 16th at the British.) Still just 26, he is making his sixth start already in the PGA Championship. If there's a weakness in his bag -- and there really isn't -- it's that American golf fans are still trying to connect with the PGA Tour rookie. He didn't do his popularity any favors by jetting to Malaysia immediately following his triumph in the first major in Georgia this year, but such is the nature of today's game globally. If you had a problem with it, let it go.
Nick Watney: The only of four two-time winners on the PGA Tour this year listed here as a top contender. He illustrated at Doral that he can slam the door when the lights are on. There are better candidates for round of the year -- his 5-under 67 featured only seven (of 14) fairways, 10 greens in regulation and two bogeys -- but his 72nd hole will top quite a few short lists of best closing efforts. With Dustin Johnson watching from the fairway and breathing down his neck on the leaderboard, Watney buried a 12-footer to secure his first victory in a World Golf Championship event. He hasn't been a factor in the three majors since, but he tied for fourth at The Players and won the AT&T National in July. A victory at the PGA would propel him to the top of the contenders for Player of the Year.
Lee Westwood: Unable to compete in last year's edition due to an injury in his right leg, the Englishman eventually reached No. 1 in the world ranking just a couple of months thereafter despite sitting out over eight weeks to heal. Critics were quick to assess that he was the beneficiary of Tiger Woods' tumble, but Westwood promptly strung together three straight top-threes, including a victory in South Africa. After losing the top spot to Martin Kaymer in February, Westwood then won twice, regaining the perch following the first victory, only to set it free again in late May when fellow countryman, Luke Donald, outlasted him in a playoff at the BMW PGA Championship. But this is Westwood's side story. He's panned for failing to finish strong, which has, in part, earned him the undisputed label of active best never to have won a major. Another contributor is that he's placed inside the top three in five of his past eight starts in major championships, the latest of which occurred at Congressional in June (T-3).
Luke Donald: The biggest reason the world's top-ranked golfer isn't a top contender is that he will have to hit long irons into the majority of the holes -- including the par 3s -- in Georgia. The Highlands Course at Atlanta Athletic Club will be listed as 7,463 yards, and seven of the 12 par 4s are expected to eclipse 450 yards. The Brit has improved his accuracy off the tee, but he's still averaging just over 280 yards on first strikes. That will elevate the stress on his approaches and decrease his margin for error. A top 10 is within reason, but the longer hitters that find just as many greens in regulation could breeze by. Donald's fail-safe is his short game and putting, but that is merely preventing him from slipping into a long shot.
Sergio Garcia: It was after his missed cut at Whistling Straits a year ago that the Spaniard went on sabbatical for nine weeks. During his time off, he served as a vice captain for the victorious European Ryder Cup team. Looking back, the break served its purpose. In his 15 starts through last year's PGA Championship, he posted just one top 10 (T-10, Andalucia Masters); in his 20 starts since, he's chalked up six, including at the past two majors. Alas, the career restart will not be fulfilled until he collects his next trophy, a feat he has not achieved since the HSBC Champions in November 2008.
Martin Kaymer: When he won at Whistling Straits a year ago, he was arguably the world's best golfer. No, he hadn't won since January 2010, but he was in the mix at most of the events casual fans recognize. The German then chased his major breakthrough with victories in each of his next two starts. Another triumph this past January ensued, but he still ranked No. 2 in the world. Not until he reached the final of the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship in February did he secure the spot atop the computer-generated formula. He'd retain it for eight weeks, and now arrives in Georgia sitting third. Moreover, since his win in Abu Dhabi eight months ago, he has just two top 10s in stroke-play events.
Phil Mickelson: The old commercial asking "What will Phil do next?" remains the most appropriate ad of our generation. Strong arguments could be made for him to sit in any of the three categories here, but this wild card won't tip his hand until, well, that's anyone's guess. Mickelson's baseline starts with his 14th club. If he's in sync with his putter, then all bets are off, but even a red-hot flatstick can't keep the ball in the fairway off the tee. The rough on the Highlands Course will show no mercy, even toward a four-time major champion.
Webb Simpson: Sure, he's a first-timer at the PGA Championship, but he made his debuts at the U.S. and British Opens this year as well, and finished T-14 and T-16, respectively. And those are his two worst finishes in his past six starts, dating back to a tie for seventh at the Memorial two months ago. The third-year PGA Tour member from Raleigh, N.C., leads his circuit in the all-around ranking, and owns the most deft hands around greens. He's also long off the tee, accurate with his irons and in the top-five on Tour in bogey avoidance. It's been only eight years since Shaun Micheel was the latest to win this major in his first appearance.
Darren Clarke: If he didn't win the British Open, he wouldn't have survived the short list for this feature. That's because two of his three top 10s over the past 13 months are victories. Furthermore, his four top 10s at the British Open are one more than his total in the other three majors combined (one in each). He was asked recently if he'd consider joining the PGA Tour again -- he was last a member in 2006, but didn't meet his minimum 15 starts, making only 11 -- but the Ulsterman dismissed the likelihood since he's not interested in chasing the FedExCup. Despite his hot-and-cold track record, his game is better suited for the weather and relaxed environment on the European Tour.
Vijay Singh: The Hall of Famer and two-time PGA Champion (1998, 2004) is 48 years old. He hasn't competed since withdrawing at the midpoint of the A&T National on July 2 due to a bad back. This prevented a trip to Royal St. George's; he also reneged on a verbal commitment to the Canadian Open the week after. Whether it's his back or his knees (two surgeries in 2009), his aging body is starting to falter. He hasn't posted a top 10 in this tournament since 2006.
Steve Stricker: It's not that the 43-year-old can't win, it's just that he has yet to in a major. Since sharing 18th place at Doral in March, he has failed to finish outside a top 20 in nine starts. Although it includes a couple of victories, he's also placed T-11 at the Masters, a T-19 at the U.S. Open and a T-12 at the British Open. And that's the problem -- always a groomsman, never a groom. Statistically, he's one of the best, leading the Tour in strokes gained-putting, birdie average, adjusted scoring average, scrambling and par-4 performance. He's also way out front in consecutive cuts made, with 36 entering the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational. A no-brainer in fantasy circles, but a proven fade at the betting window.
David Toms: Returned to competition at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, his first live action without a cart since being forced out after nine holes of the John Deere Classic due to a hip injury. The 2001 champion at the Highlands Course at Atlanta Athletic Club is best-remembered for two reasons. First, he aced the par-3 15th hole in the third round. The next day, he laid up on the 72nd hole, knocked a wedge to 12 feet and buried the putt for par and a one-stroke margin of victory over Phil Mickelson. The track will play 250 yards longer than it did 10 years ago, but Toms ranks second on the PGA Tour in fairways hit and first in greens in regulation. And with a return to the winner's circle in May (at Colonial) and over $2.9 million already this season, in a vacuum he's a contender. But the 44-year-old is going to have to prove at Firestone that his hip is a non-factor.
Tiger Woods: Given his trials and tribulations, this label shouldn't surprise you. He returned from injuries in his left leg at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone, a site where he's won seven of 10 times, most ever for one golfer at the same venue in the same tournament. However, general speculation suggested that a top 25 would qualify as a mild success. And so goes the restructuring of our expectations. He hasn't won anywhere since the Australian Masters in late 2009 (his last start pre-hydrant) and has been hitting full shots for only 3-4 weeks in advance of the PGA Championship. His appearance in the season's final major will do more for his confidence than calling it a year and starting anew in 2012. Considering it an opportunity to log live reps with an evolving swing. Nothing more.