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PGA Championship Preview

Not the usual thing for this blog as it has little to do with Mitt Romney and the world of politics. However, if our President can take excessive time off from his expected duty of leading this country for the sake of golf, Conservative for Mitt can spare one or two posts reflecting on the final major of the year. The 2010 PGA Championship begins today at Whistling Straits Golf Club in Wisconsin. The course, which previously held the PGA Championship in 2004, emulates the notoriously difficult links style courses of the UK. It will challenge players in many of the same ways as we have seen in the first three majors of the season, mixing the long rolling fairways of Augusta, the rocky coastlines of Pebble Beach, and pretty much most of the really hard stuff about St. Andrews.

As is the trend throughout many championship courses, it demands length from its players, totaling more than 7500 yards worth of play. Par 5s are between 563 and 618 yards, and are not necessarily eagle, or even easy birdie opportunities. Pot bunkers litter the course strategically, in places where they will most punish poor decisions. Its signature holes include a short par 4 6th known as “Gremlin’s Ear” that entices players to make the bold move, potentially leaving you in a bunker struggling to save bogey if you or giving you a short but blind second shot if you play it safe. The other signature is a demanding par 3 17th (“Pinched Nerve”) pointing right at Lake Michigan that gives you three options: the green, a massive bunker, or over the cliff and into the water.

This course demands the best from the best players in the world. Vijay Singh took home the title six years ago; smart reasoning indicates that it will again be a seasoned veteran rising to the top this weekend. Of course, golf rarely heeds the expectations of smart reasoning.

Phil Mickelson will be the man to watch this weekend, with Lee Westwood out of the picture. Mickelson has had top five finishes in four of his last six majors. Over the past couple of months, Mickelson has had several opportunities to overtake the position of #1 in the world. There is a fair case to be made that this fact is disrupting his concentration, causing him to fall out of contention on Sunday afternoons. Mickelson is a different man when it comes to majors though. Last spring, he surged past Westwood and the field, posting a back-nine 32 at Augusta to take his fourth major victory. This Sunday, he should win his fifth. Mickelson will begin play alongside his fellow 2010 major winners, Graeme McDowell and Louis Oosthuizen.

Speaking of Graeme McDowell and Louis Oosthuizen, the U.S. Open winner from Northern Ireland has a reasonable chance at taking his second major this weekend. McDowell followed up on his first major with a respectable 23rd place finish in the wind at St. Andrews. As for the South African, he will seek his second major at a course that boasts pot bunkers, massive greens, exceedingly long par 5s, a couple of short but difficult par 4s, and demanding par 3s. The last time he played at a place like that, he won by seven strokes. All things put together, the threesome beginning play at 1:35 (Central time) will be very exciting to watch.

Ernie Els is the sort of player that excels at a course like Whistling Straits. He is a veteran, a grinder. He has been through the physical, mental, and emotional process of winning a major, and is not prone to collapse with all eyes on him on Sunday afternoon. In 2004, when the PGA Championship last came to Whistling Straits, Els made a strong Sunday run on the back nine that saw him finish fourth, just one stroke off of the three-way tie that saw Vijay Singh take his victory in a playoff. Since then, Els has battled injury, a slump, and has changed his coach and his swing. So far though 2010 has seen him make a return to his old form with two PGA Tour victories and the current lead in the FedEx cup point standings. A major victory is just what the South African needs to cap his resurgence. Els will play alongside American Ken Sutherland, and emerging contender Dustin Johnson.

Retief Goosen the friend and fellow South African of Ernie Els has undergone a similar path to his career over the past couple of years, and is seeing a similar return to contention in 2010. For a course that provides a challenge such as Whistling Straits, the calm demeanor of the Iceman is a beneficial trait toward obtaining that hard won victory. Since the 2009 British Open, Goosen has had a fair string of strong finishes that have continued throughout this summer, and include eight top tens for the 2010 season. Goosen enters this weekend coming off of a third place finish at the Bridgestone Invitational. Like Els, a major win such as this would be the ultimate cap to signal to the golfing world that the Iceman is indeed back. Goosen will start his play on the back nine this afternoon, the veteran in a threesome containing young prospects Ryan Moore, and Francesco Molinari.

Padraig Harrington, three time major winner, must be considered as a likely contender at a course such as this modeled after British and Irish links courses. Harrington was the strongest man on the tour for much of 2007 and 2008, until self-imposed changes threw him off of his swing. Facing criticism for changing a working model, Harrington has insisted that in the long run his game will be stronger and more consistent. So far the results have not shown such, but this is a prime opportunity for the Irishman to begin his resurgence. Harrington’s four solid rounds at the Bridgestone Invitational indicate that he is finally becoming more consistent with his play. A course such as this likely means that the championship comes down to conservative decisions and hard fought pars. If so then Padraig Harrington might make this look like 2007 all over again. Harrington starts play on hole #10 this morning, alongside fellow major winners Davis Love III, and the always entertaining John Daly.

Justin Rose is the “dark horse” candidate among this list of likely contenders. “Dark horse” is necessarily in quotes as it is something of a stretch to consider the twentieth ranked player in the world a true dark horse. Nevertheless with fourteen majors won among the five other players on this list, Rose is the relative underdog in this match. The Englishman has not seen Saturday play at a major since the 2009 British Open, yet his play throughout the summer of 2010, culminating in two PGA Tour victories shows him ready to make a charge at a big event. This did not happen at the British Open, but with weather expected to be less of a factor in opening play than at St. Andrews, his strong summer could be capped this weekend. Rose presents a strong opportunity to bridge the tendency of the course that historically favors veterans with the season that has seen the rise of many young newcomers. Rose will play this afternoon, alongside emerging American contender Nick Watney and South African veteran Tim Clark.

Maybe a day late…

but congratulations to South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen whose consistent, remarkable play at St. Andrews lead to his dominating victory at the British Open. Oosthuizen was a 200-1 longshot, not on anybody’s radar for victory with the possible exception of South Africa, but unlike so many who have wilted after sleeping on the 54-hole lead he remained steady in cruising to a seven shot victory. Lee Westwood, the favorite of many golf handicappers including myself, once again finished second.