There’s an obvious answer to this question, “The PGA Championship, a major title.” To quote my nine-year-old self, “no duh!”
There’s a deeper prize for the man who walks away as the final major champion of 2013. Each of the contenders has a pretty good story behind them and hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy Sunday afternoon will provide a perfect punctuation for the victor.
It seems to me that six shots is the absolute cut-off for anyone to have a chance to win. That makes eight players, between nine and three under par. After the remarkable change in course conditions between Friday and Saturday, it’s a safe bet that no one beyond six back has a chance, since a super-low number (63-65) is probably not out there. So for even the groups at -3 or -4, they’ll have to post something around -7 and hope. You can bet though, any player outside the final group will happily take seven-under in the clubhouse Sunday afternoon and like their chances.
These are the eight men, and the significance of a win for each of them:
- Rory McIlroy – After a birdie-birdie finish over the two most difficult holes on the course McIlroy’s spot on the leaderboard just kept improving as the day went on. If he can match Saturday’s 67, or even better it Sunday, he’ll be able to look the collective golf world in the eye and say, “can you just leave me the —- alone now?” A defense of last year’s triumph at Kiawah Island would validate the big-money switch to Nike at the start of the year. It would validate the jet-setting romance with tennis start Caroline Wozniacki. And it would validate, yet again, that Rory is the future. He’s looked lost at various points throughout the year, as recently as the Open Championship three weeks ago. There’s also this: only two other men have ever won three majors by the age of 24. The first was Jack Nicklaus, the other was Tiger Woods.
- Lee Westwood – He’s back again. I don’t know how Lee Westwood continues to put himself back in the hunt at majors after so many close calls and disappointments, but it’s a testament to his resolve that he does. The man who held the 54-hole lead at Muirfield only to be passed by Phil Mickelson’s epic 66 can redeem that loss, and the numerous others he’s had in the majors over the last five years. In his last 21 majors, he has finished in the top three NINE TIMES. No other player can match that record. The closest is Phil Mickelson with six top threes. The difference is that two of Phil’s top threes are wins. And the runner-up was the same both times, Lee Westwood. Should he win, he’ll lose the moniker of “best player without” and he’ll lock up a Hall of Fame spot. Most importantly, Westwood’s win can end the comparisons to Colin Montgomerie as best player ever without a major.
- Adam Scott – He’s already had a banner year after becoming the first Australian to win The Masters. But now it’s about meeting that potential of multiple major wins. Scott himself said that he was hungry for majors before Augusta, and now he’s even hungrier. That is the mark of a champion. He knows he’s good enough and wants very badly to amend his loss at the Open a few weeks ago, which he said stung more than the collapse a Lytham last year. A win vaults Scott into Hall of Fame consideration, and can start legitimate comparisons to his idol, Greg Norman.
- Steve Stricker – A storybook ending is the only way to describe a Steve Stricker win. Two distinct chapters of success in his career flank a period of deep despair. While Stricker probably won’t get into the Hall of Fame, he is an all-world nice guy, he was voted as such in a recent player poll. Stricker winning a major would seem to cap the 46-year-old’s career.
- Jonas Blixt – Easily the least known player in the group, Blixt has already won on the PGA Tour this year. A win at Oak Hill would, in my estimation, would mirror the rise of Keegan Bradley. Blixt is certainly talented enough and becoming the first Swedish man to win a major would point him on the trajectory to stardom.
- Henrik Stenson – The hottest golfer on the planet continues to play lights-out. He seems to fire his approach shots right at the flag, either just over the top of it or perfectly positioned 10-15 below the hole, ideal putting position. Stenson lost nearly all of his money in the Allen Stanford Ponzi scheme from 2009-10. He hit the depths, losing a club championship in Sweden, and nearly quitting the game. But he proved his superb talent toward the end of the 2000s with a WGC-Match Play win, a Players Championship and two Ryder Cup appearances. That form has returned, and is knocking on the door of a major championship.
- Jason Dufner – After losing to Keegan Bradley two years ago in Atlanta, finally winning not once, but twice last year on Tour and consecutive top-four finishes in majors, Dufner is poised to become known for so much more than Dufnering. A win moves him into the category of American players just below Tiger, Phil and Furyk. In the same group as other 20-30-something players with multiple wins and a major: Webb Simpson, Bubba Watson and Keegan Bradley.
- Jim Furyk – The most fascinating story of any player. After an unbelievably uncharacteristic 70th hole snap-hook that cost him the US Open last year, and a costly double bogey to lose at Firestone, and a fairway bunker on the last hole of his Ryder Cup singles match, Furyk has been looking to bounce back from a gut-wrenching 2012. A clutch birdie on the 17th Saturday gave him the 54-hole lead. He is steady enough to win, and even par will probably be good enough to do it. Furyk, like Westwood, is playing for his place in history. Currently he’s a borderline Hall of Famer, probably out. He’s the third-best American of his generation behind Tiger and Phil, but where does he rank overall? He’s behind Ernie and Vijay as well. If he lifts the Wanamaker Trophy Sunday, I think he jumps ahead of Padraig Harrington as the number five player of his era.