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Prognosticating the PGA

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – America’s major drought stands at six, the longest such streak in golf history, and if you’re looking for positive signs that it will end at this week’s PGA Championship, you’ll need a magnifying glass. A European hadn’t won this tournament in 74 years before Padraig Harrington hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy in 2008. Y.E. Yang’s stunner over Tiger Woods in ’09 and Martin Kaymer’s playoff victory last August make the PGA an apt reflection of the game’s shifting power balance.

It might get worse before it gets better. Here are my favorites heading to Atlanta Athletic Club.

Rory McIlroy (12-1): In golf’s what-have-you-done-lately universe, he’s not the hottest player in town, but he is the best. A long, straight ball works just about anywhere, but at this ballpark, it’s an absolute requirement, which is why neither Woods nor Phil Mickelson will be around Sunday afternoon. Is McIlroy ready to get back to the business of winning big tournaments? Guess we’ll have to see, but I suspect he’ll be in the mix with nine holes to play.

Lee Westwood (14-1): You can’t have a favorites list at any major without him on it. Westwood’s putting has cost him dearly at big tournaments over the years, but only recently has he enlisted the help of guru Dave Stockton. It’s not so much that he’s a lousy putter – he just never makes one when he really needs to. Maybe his time will come. Maybe it won’t.

Jason Day (15-1): He keeps knocking on the door at the biggest events, and at some point, the talented young Aussie will finish the job. He drives it too well and makes too many putts not to win a major in the near future. Maybe this isn’t the week, but runner-up finishes at the Masters and U.S. Open suggest he’ll become the first player from Down Under to claim a green jacket. Only a matter of time with this kid.

Dustin Johnson (16-1): Still America’s best hope despite the shank that ended his hopes at the British Open. Johnson drives it straighter than any of the jumbo hitters, and though his low ball flight won’t do him any favors at AAC, it’s hard to imagine the PGA of America letting the greens get too firm in the sweltering Georgia heat. Is there scar tissue from past failures? There has to be. And the guy keeps showing up.

Bubba Watson (25-1): If you’ve got to be really long or really straight to have a chance this week, Bubba’s in the hunt. His towering shapes off the tee will serve him well at AAC, but nobody will winthis tournament from the rough, regardless of how benign it is. The playoffloss to Kaymer at Whistling Straits last year was his first real taste of the highest level, and though a lot of good things have happened since, Watson’s summer has only been so-so. No top 20s since the victory in New Orleans. Needs to keep his chin up when the bad breaks come to get him.

Steve Stricker (30-1): My sense is that AAC won’t be a “putter’s course,” meaning solid tee-to-green play is essential, but Stricker has evolved into a terrific all-around player whose penchant for finding the hole only complements his ballstriking. The numbers across the board are superb: first on the PGA Tour in par-4 performance, first in birdie-conversion percentage, first in GIRs from inside 100 yards. Here’s another stat – Stricker ranks fourth when comes to hitting the green from a fairway bunker. Remember that shot to win the John Deere? AAC has a lot of sand.

Tiger Woods (30-1): A lot of good things would need to happen for Red Shirt to even find a spot in the Sunday hunt. Talk all you want about rust and the wounded leg, but Woods’ return at Firestone was marred by the same problems that have nagged him for years. He doesn’t drive it straight, and though nobody does a better job of escaping trouble, AAC is too long and too buffered to allow much of a Seve impersonation. Tiger’s fairway percentage has dropped below 50 percent, which qualifies as ghastly. Still not enough evidence to suggest Big Comeback starts this week.

Adam Scott (35-1): Wouldn’t have been considered for this list until the victory last week, which was bigger than the 2004 Players because Scott had basically disappeared from the game’s top tier. His putting woes may not be a total thing of the past, but again, you won’t need to hole a bunch of 20-footers to win this PGA. The knock on Scott has always been a faulty short game, but driving the ball has never been an issue. A good tool to have in your arsenal this week.

Ryo Ishikawa (50-1): Last week’s strong performance in Ohio reaffirmed the Bashful Prince’s vast potential – and could go a long way toward turning around what has been a mediocre year on both sides of the Pacific. No question, the tsunami-related devastation in his homeland left a mark on the kid’s psyche. At age 19, Ishikawa has one of the purest and most effective putting strokes anywhere. He has also played in enough premium-field events to know what he’s in for, if not what it takes to walk away with a title. This week, it will require a very robust tee ball and some cold towels.

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