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Stat attack!: PGA Championship preview

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If the number of quality players in top form coming into the PGA Championship is an indication of how the year’s final Grand Slam event will play out, get ready for one of the best majors in quite some time. Then again, for sheer dramatics, any close competition would make the PGA a more compelling event than the U.S. or British Opens, which were won in routs by Martin Kaymer and Rory McIlroy, respectively. Seven golfers, led by McIlroy (above) who won both events, finished in the top 10 in both the British and last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Four of them have already won majors, and only Marc Leishman would not be someone you’d ordinarily consider a major contender.

Players with top 10s in the British Open and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational

 Player British Bridgestone 2013 PGA
 Rory McIlroy Won Won T-8
 Sergio Garcia T-2 2 T-61
 Rickie Fowler T-2 T-8 T-19
 Marc Leishman T-5 3 T-12
 Adam Scott T-5 T-8 T-5
 Charl Schwartzel T-7 T-4 MC
 Graeme McDowell T-9 T-8 T-12

Notice that five of the seven were top-20 finishers in the 2013 PGA at Oak Hill, including Leishman, who you shouldn’t sleep on this week. The Aussie is having an outstanding year. Without a top-10 rank in any major statistic, the 30-year-old is 14th on Tour in scoring average and eighth in all-around rank. He has six top-10 finishes this season.

Marc Leishman’s best finishes in 2013-14

 Tourament Finish Note
 Farmers Insurance T-2 Scott Stallings birdied last hole to win
 WGC-Bridgestone 3 Opened with 64, finished three back of McIlroy
 Byron Nelson T-3 Finished four back of Brendon Todd
 Sony Open 5 T-2 after 36 holes, stumbled on weekend
 British Open T-5 Sunday 65 matched day’s best score
 Quicken Loans T-8 36-hole co-leader before 73-74 weekend

Leishman also led the Masters early in the second round with three straight birdies to start the day, but he finished with a 79 Friday that included six bogeys and two doubles to miss the cut. He did not play the U.S. Open, but that’s hardly a prerequisite for a PGA Championship victory. Since 2002, four PGA champions did not play in that year’s U.S. Open. Three of them – Keegan Bradley in 2011, Shaun Micheel in 2003 and Rich Beem in 2002 – did not play in any of the year’s majors prior to winning.


If Leishman is the sleeper, McIlroy is the solid favorite. Having already won the British and the Bridgestone, Rory is looking to join Tiger Woods as the only players to pull off the summer Triple Crown. He could also join Woods and Padraig Harrington as the only players since 1999 to win the British and the PGA in the same year.

Summer slammers: Players who won two of the three big summer events in the same year

 Year Player British Bridgestone PGA
 2014 Rory McIlroy Won Won  TBD
 2008  Padraig Harrington Won T-20 Won
 2007 Tiger Woods T-12 Won Won
 2006 Tiger Woods Won Won Won
 2005 Tiger Woods Won Won T-4
 2000 Tiger Woods Won Won Won
 1999 Tiger Woods T-7 Won Won

Looking at the statistical leaders the previous two times the PGA was held at Valhalla doesn’t really give a clear indication of what to expect this week. When Mark Brooks won in 1996 he didn’t finish in the top 20 in any stat other than putting average, where he was No. 1. In 2000, Tiger Woods didn’t putt all that well, but dominated from tee to green.

Statistics of PGA Championship winners at Valhalla in 1996 and 2000

 Year Winner Distance Accuracy GIR Putting avg.
 2000 Tiger Woods 305.0 (1) 80.4% (T-12) 83.3% (1) 1.70 (29)
 1996 Mark Brooks 283.4 (T-21) 73.2 (T-43) 69.4 (T-30) 1.52 (1)

Brooks and Woods both excelled on the back nine and on the par-5 holes. Tiger led the field in par-5 scoring in 2000 and Brooks was T-12 when he won. Brooks led the field in back-nine scoring in 1996 and Woods was second in 2000. Lo and behold, in 2014 McIlroy is a solid ninth on Tour in par-5 scoring and in back-nine scoring he’s numero uno.

PGA Tour leaders in back-nine scoring average in 2013-14

 Player Back-nine average
 Rory McIlroy 34.57
 Sergio Garcia 34.62
 Jerry Kelly 34.81
 Graeme McDowell 34.94
 Matt Kuchar 35.97

With McIlroy, Fowler, Garcia and the others from our first list playing so well this summer, it’s easy to forget a second tier of contenders that includes Jim Furyk (fourth in the British, second in Canadian Open and T-15 at Akron), Keegan Bradley (three straight top-20 finishes) and Matt Kuchar (fourth in Canada, T-12 at Akron). There will be enough stars at the tops off their games that the likelihood of not seeing Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson at their best shouldn’t be a concern.

Let’s consider the veteran trio. Even if Tiger does play, he probably won’t contend. Els is having a down year, with no top-10 finishes in a stroke-play event on the PGA Tour this year. He too, is likely not a contender. Mickelson, as usual, is a riddle. Lefty doesn’t have a top-10 finish on Tour in any type of event this year, but he has been in the top 20 eight times. Seven times he came within two strokes of finishing in the top 10. With a combined 15 fewer strokes he would have eight top 10s and the talk about his down year would turn into talk about why he’s a PGA favorite. Of note, he did finish T-8 at Valhalla in 1996 and T-9 in 2000.

Phil Mickelson’s top-20 finishes in 2013-14

 Tournament Finish Strokes out of top 10 Finish with two less strokes
 CIMB Classic T-19 4 T-14
 WGC-HSBC Champions 14 2 T-8
 AT&T Pebble T-19 2 T-10
 WGC-Cadillac T-16 2 T-9
 Shell Houston T-12 1 T-6
 Wells Fargo T-11 1 T-6
 FedEx St. Jude T-11 1 T-3
 WGC-Bridgestone T-15 2 T-8

Leishman, McIlroy and Mickelson. Call them your sleeper, your favorite and your enigma. One of them quite possibly will also be the 2014 PGA Champion.

One final thought: Other than Woods in 1999-2000 and 2006-2007 no player has won back-to-back PGA Championships since Denny Shute in the 1930s. That seems to count out reigning champ Jason Dufner. But Nick Price, Jack Nicklaus, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan all won two in three years. That’s the kind of company McIlroy, who won in 2012 at Kiawah Island, will keep if he wins this week.

If you haven't already done so, please follow me on Twitter at @johnantoninigc