Georgians – PGA Championship, page 14
By Mike Blum
From a purely American viewpoint, it looks like the PGA picked the right year to returnto Atlanta Athletic Club for its championship event.
Since Phil Mickelson won the 2010 Masters, the last five major championships havebeen won by golfers from Ireland, South Africa and Germany, with the first two countriesclaiming two titles each.
Each of the last three PGA Championships have been won by international players. Butif history repeats itself, that streak will come to an end when Atlanta AC hosts the 2011PGA Championship August 11-14.
This will be the third time the PGA Championship has been played at AAC’s HighlandsCourse and the fourth major the club has hosted since it moved from its long-time homeat East Lake in the 1960s.
The club is the lone one in the southeast U.S. to have hosted both the PGA Championshipand U.S. Open, and its location may have played a role in determining its majorchampions.
All three players who have won majors at AAC were sons of the South, including onenative Georgian and another who has lived most of his life in the state.
Jerry Pate, a rookie on the PGA Tour when he won the U.S. Open at AAC in 1976, wasborn in Macon, attended the U. of Alabama and is a long-time resident of Pensacola, Fla.
Five years later, Atlanta Athletic Club hosted the PGA Championship, with Marietta’s Larry Nelson claiming the first of his three major titles with a four-stroke victory over Fuzzy Zoeller.
The PGA Championship returned to AAC in 2001 and native Louisianan David Toms came away with the Wanamaker Trophy, edging out Phil Mickelson in one of the mostentertaining head-to-head duels in the event since it abandoned a match play format in 1958.
Toms will be back in the field for this year’s tournament, along with a Georgia contingentthat includes three former major champions along with a player who could be the bestAmerican hope to end the brief winless drought in golf’s four Grand Slam events.
Long-time Sea Island resident Davis Love won the 1997 PGA Championship at WingedFoot, and will be appearing in the event for the 25th time. Love has recorded three top 10finishes in the PGA since his victory, but has struggled in recent years. He missed the cutthree straight times before finishing T55 at Whistling Straits last year.
The last time Atlanta AC hosted the PGA Championship, Love was a major factor for 54holes, coming into the final round in 6th place after scores of 67-65. But he struggled overthe final 11 holes on Sunday and shot 77 to slip to a tie for 37th at even par 280.
Love, who will be the 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, has a long history of contending inmajors, finishing 2nd twice in the Masters with back-to-back finishes of 4th and 2nd in theU.S. Open. He has played well in each of the last two U.S. Opens, including a tie for 11that Congressional, one of three recent tournaments in which Love has placed 16th or better.
Zach Johnson, who now lives close to Love on St. Simons Island, made a serious challenge at Whistling Straits last year, finishing just one shot out of the playoff won by Martin Kaymer. Only one player hit more fairways than Johnson, and the ability to findfairways will be a key to solving Atlanta Athletic Club’s demanding test.
Johnson, the 2007 Masters champion, has a history of success in Atlanta, winning theformer PGA Tour stop at TPC Sugarloaf in 2004 and ’07. He tied for 2nd in the Tour Championship at East Lake in ‘07, firing a course record 60. Johnson has played his bestgolf this year since May, posting consecutive finishes of 6th, 12th and 4th in Charlotte, thePlayers and Colonial.
Duluth’s Stewart Cink is the last American other than Mickelson to win a major, takingthe 2009 British Open in a playoff over Tom Watson. Cink has played respectably the last two years, but has only a handful of top 10s to show for his efforts, just one in 2011.He was a contender going to the final round in Charlotte, but shot 74 the final day tofinish T9.
Cink’s best showing in the PGA came in 1999 at Medinah, when he was a close 3rdbehind Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia. He also has 3rd place finishes in the U.S. Openand Masters, but missed the cut in both majors this year. After being consistently rankedamong the top 20 in the World Rankings in 2008 and ’09, Cink has fallen to around 75th,his lowest standing in years.
While Cink has been sliding down the rankings, fellow Georgia Tech alumnus Matt Kuchar has been heading in the opposite direction. Kuchar is well inside the top 10 afterleading the PGA Tour in earnings last year and just being edged out by Jim Furyk inthe FedExCup points race. He was in the top five in both money and points after the U.S.Open thanks to eight top-10 finishes, tied with Luke Donald for the tour lead.
Until last year, Kuchar had an awful career record in majors, but had strong top-10showings in both the U.S. Open and PGA and played well in the recent U.S. Open.Kuchar has joined the growing number of tour players living on St. Simons Island,
moving to the coast from Atlanta last year.
Jonathan Byrd started his major championship career with excellent showings in theMasters (T8) and U.S. Open (T15) in 2003. But since then he has qualified for just 12majors and missed the cut 10 times, with a T20 in the 2006 PGA at Medinah his best finish.
Byrd, also a St. Simons resident, did not qualify for any of the majors in 2009 and ’10,and missed the cut in both the Masters and U.S. Open this year. Other than majors, Byrdhas played some of the best golf of his career over the past year. He won last Fall in LasVegas and opened 2011 with a victory in the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, bothwins coming in playoffs. Byrd lost a playoff in Charlotte to former Clemson teammate Lucas Glover, and is just outside the top 10 this year in both points and money.
Alpharetta resident Heath Slocum also won during last year’s Fall Series, taking theinaugural McGladrey Classic at Sea Island GC. But after a top-30 finish on the 2010money list, Slocum has struggled this season, with a recent tie for 11th in the U.S. Open his best showing thus far.
Slocum has been a consistent (if infrequent) performer in the majors during his decadeon the PGA Tour, with several respectable showings in the PGA Championship. His bestfinish was 22nd in his first PGA start at Hazeltine in 2002.
Augusta native Charles Howell has been among the more consistent performers onthe PGA Tour this year, posting 10 top-20 finishes in his first 19 starts. A tie for 3rd inMemphis moved Howell into the top 40 in both money and points, and he was T3 in his next start in Philadelphia. But like Byrd, his consistent play of late has not translated intosuccess in the majors.
Howell, who has won just twice in 12 years on tour, has not qualified for either theMasters or U.S. Open since 2008, and has not placed better than 30th in a major since2006. Howell enjoyed a string of solid showings in majors early in his career, but a tie for 10th in the 2003 PGA at Oak Hill remains his career best finish.
Former Georgia Bulldog Bubba Watson has already proven to be a major factor in golf’sfour elite events, taking Kaymer to a playoff last year before being edged out on the thirdextra hole. Watson tied for 5th in his first U.S. Open start in 2007 and was T20 in his fristMasters start in ’09.
The long-hitting Watson has won twice this season, once on a U.S. Open course (TorreyPines) and made it to the semifinals of the WGC Match Play Championship beforelosing to Kaymer. Other than those three events, however, Watson did little this seasonthrough the U.S. Open, where he turned in a lackluster showing after a poor final roundin Augusta dropped him from the top 10 to T38. Despite his up-and-down season, Watson will join Kuchar among the top American hopes in the final major of 2011.
Fellow ex-Bulldog Ryuji Imada is in position to qualify for his first major since 2009,and has played his best golf of the season in recent weeks, finishing one shot out of aplayoff in the Byron Nelson Classic and tying for 3rd in Memphis. Imada has several excellent efforts in the U.S. Open and played well in his lone Masters start, but failed tomake the cut in any of his three appearances in the PGA.
In just the third start in a major in his professional career, former Georgia Techstandout Bryce Molder tied for 12th in the 2010 PGA to earn a return invitation to thechampionship. Molder, who spent five of his first seven pro seasons on the NationwideTour, is playing on the PGA Tour for a third straight year. He posted an early tie for 6that Pebble Beach, where he was one shot out of the lead after 54 holes, and a had recentback-to-backs top 10s in Hartford, where he played in the final group on Sunday, and the AT&T National.
The rest of Georgia’s PGA Tour contingent were not eligible through late June, withrookie Chris Kirk and Troy Matteson both within a high finish or two of earning a spot in the field.
Vaughn Taylor and Jason Bohn, like Matteson two-time winners on the PGA Tour,are both suffering through the poorest seasons of their careers, and will likely need atournament win or runner-up finish before the PGA to qualify.