Punch Shot: Major questions on eve of PGA

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SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – The men’s final major of the season begins Thursday at Whistling Straits Golf Course. The on-site team answers some pressing questions on the eve of the 97thPGA Championship.

WHO WILL FINISH THE WEEK NO. 1: RORY MCILROY OR JORDAN SPIETH?

REX HOGGARD: When the dust settles on Sunday it will still be McIlroy atop the Official World Golf Ranking, but not by much. Of the litany of scenarios for Spieth to overtake McIlroy – ranging from a Spieth victory to McIlroy missing the cut – it will still be difficult for the exchange to occur, at least this week.

RANDALL MELL: Spieth. This is a less severe Chambers Bay moonscape, with really good greens. McIlroy’s rust is a factor.

RYAN LAVNER: Rory will stay No. 1, at least for a few more weeks. I expect both to play well, but neither to win, which would keep McIlroy in the top spot. Spieth isn’t a short hitter by any means, but he’ll be at a significant disadvantage on a course that is softer than anticipated. You have to figure that at least one of the big bombers – Bubba, DJ, J-Day, etc. – will power their way to victory.

MERCER BAGGS: Spieth. There are scenarios that could unfold to where he doesn't have to win and can still ascend to No. 1. If he wins, however, he dethrones Rory unless McIlroy finishes solo second. Since I think Spieth is going to win, therefore I think odds are he will be No. 1 come Sunday evening.


HOW WILL TIGER WOODS FARE: WIN, CONTEND, ALSO-RAN OR MISSED CUT?

HOGGARD: The progress Woods has talked about for so long finally arrived two weeks ago at the Quicken Loans National (T-18), but he continues to struggle to hit fairways - he’s 181st on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy - and that’s not a recipe for success at Whistling Straits. He will make the cut, just don’t expect him to contend.

MELL: Tiger misses the cut. The game isn’t really there, and the mental edge isn’t there, either. Woods sounds like he wouldn’t be overly upset if his season ends this week so he can regroup yet again.

LAVNER: He’s more likely to miss the cut than seriously contend. Woods has never played Whistling Straits when he was in good form – he was in the midst of swing changes at the PGAs here in 2004 and ’10, and now he’s a player who seems capable of stringing, at best, only a few good rounds together. He will have to hit driver more this week than at any point this season. Big red flag.

BAGGS: Don't use his T-18 at the Quicken Loans as a baramoter for this week. Look to his most recent major performances - a pair of badly missed cuts. It would be great to see Woods in the mix this weekend, even if it's just on Saturday. But we likely won't see him at all this weekend.


WHO IS A DARK-HORSE CONTENDER?

HOGGARD: Brooks Koepka won his first Tour event earlier this year in Phoenix and has been trending in the right direction recently, with top-10 finishes in three of his last five events. But more importantly, he hits the ball a mile which is required at Whistling Straits.

MELL: Kevin Kisner. He’s knocking on the door with three second-place finishes this season, two of those in playoff losses. His runner-up finish at The Players showed he can handle playing against the big stars on the big stages.

LAVNER: If a 2015 PGA Tour winner can be considered a darkhorse, I’m taking Brooks Koepka. He’s coming off a T-6 at Firestone, a venue that has proven to be a strong indicator of PGA success. More reasons to dig him this week: He’s made the cut in all three majors this season (including a top-10 at St. Andrews) and Whistling Straits should fit his smash-mouth game.

BAGGS: Justin Thomas. He has to be brimming with confidence. In addition to teaming with Spieth to beat Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler in a Tuesday money match, Thomas has a pair of top-5 finishes in his last two Tour starts.


WHAT IS THE BEST SUNDAY STORYLINE?

HOGGARD: Sports is at its best during true rivalries and it would be hard to imagine a better time for Spieth and McIlroy to officially kick off their rivalry than the PGA Championship. The game’s two young stars going head-to-head on a major Sunday with the top spot in the world ranking hanging in the balance, not sure it could get much better than that.

MELL: Steve Stricker. If he gets some putts to fall early, he’ll ignite the land of bubbling cheese pits and malt-and-barley lakes. The Wisconsin boy is striking the ball confidently. If he wins, it’s a fairy-tale story, the homegrown talent winning his first major in what he believed could be his last start in a major.

LAVNER: Spieth holds off McIlroy and denies Dustin Johnson again down the stretch to win major No. 3, but McIlroy stays No. 1 because he finishes second in his return from injury. Too much to ask? OK, probably. Our only hope should be that this major lives up to last year’s PGA, with plenty of star power and birdies during the final round.

BAGGS: Sheboygan Shocker: Woods wins 15th major. But that ain't gonna happen. What is more likely to happen is Spieth winning his third major of the season. And barring a Tiger miracle, that would be the best storyline this week. It would be even better if it was Spieth vs. McIlroy in the final group on Sunday. But we'll probably have to settle for their early-round showdown. Why would a Spieth win be better than a McIlroy win? Because an individual sport needs a single, dominant figure. That's what Spieth would be with a win.