By Mike Blum
Two of golf’s biggest events are coming to Atlanta in a few months, and the game’s top players are vying to secure spots in the respective fields of the PGA Championship and PGA Tour Championship.
In the case of the Tour Championship, which will be played Sept. 22-25 at East Lake Golf Club, players must first qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs, which begin August 25 with The Barclays, the first of three tournaments leading up to East Lake.
The top 125 players on the FedExCup points list after the annual PGA Tour stop in Greensboro, N.C., will qualify for the Playoffs, with the field being reduced each week. The top 30 will advance to East Lake for the Tour Championship.
The PGA Championship, which will be played Aug. 11-14 at Atlanta Athletic Club, the week before the FedExCup regular season ends in Greensboro, will have a field of 156, with 20 of the spots reserved for the top finishers in the PGA Professional National Championship, the top event for the country’s club professionals. That tournament will be played in Hershey, Pa., June 26-29.
Through late May, 63 players (not including former PGA Championship winners now playing on the Champions Tour) had already qualified for the 2011 PGA Championship, with another 61 also in the field if the qualification criteria concluded at that point.
There are several ways players can earn spots in the field at Atlanta Athletic Club between now and tournament week. All winners of PGA Tour events prior to the PGA Championship will earn invitations, including the tournaments opposite the British Open (Viking Classic) and WGC Bridgestone Invitational (Reno-Tahoe Classic).
The top 70 players on a money list beginning with the 2010 Bridgestone Invitational and ending with the 2011 Greenbrier Classic will also qualify, with the PGA Championship alternate list consisting of players just below the top 70.
The PGA also invites all players in the top 100 in the World Rankings a few weeks prior to the PGA Championship, as well as annually issuing several special invitations to players outside the top 100. As a result, the field for the PGA Championship is almost always the strongest of the year in golf, with no players of consequence missing, barring injury.
Of the 63 players who had qualified for the PGA Championship as of late May, eight have Georgia ties, among them a former PGA champion (Davis Love) and two recent major champions (Stewart Cink and Zach Johnson). Former Georgia Bulldog golfer Bubba Watson was the runner-up in last year’s PGA Championship, losing in a playoff to Martin Kaymer, with Matt Kuchar and his former Georgia Tech teammate Bryce Molder also earning invitations with their top-15 finishes in 2010 at Whistling Straits.
Watson and Kuchar have both won on the PGA Tour since the 2010 PGA, with Jonathan Byrd and Heath Slocum also locking up spots in the field with victories during last year’s Fall Finish.
A ninth Georgian is in strong position to make it into the field at Atlanta Athletic Club. Charles Howell was 55th on the PGA Championship money list. If he continues his solid play thus far this season, Howell will return to AAC, where he made the cut for the first time in a major championship a decade ago.
PGA Tour rookie Chris Kirk is a good bet to make it into the field of the PGA Championship for the first time, but will need some strong showings in the next few months. Kirk was barely outside the top 100 in the World Rankings (102 as of late May) and was also close to the top 70 on the money list, ranking 76th after the Colonial Invitational.
For five veteran PGA Tour members who either live in the state or played their college golf in Athens or Atlanta, it’s going to take a victory or some inspired play between now and the end of July to be afforded the chance to tee it up at Atlanta Athletic Club in August.
Vaughn Taylor, Jason Bohn, Troy Matteson, David Duval and Ryuji Imada all were well outside both the top 70 on the money list and top 100 in the World Rankings, and will need to play significantly better than they have to this point in 2011 if they hope to qualify.
At 83 on the PGA Championship money list, Matteson was the only one of the five in the top 100, with Taylor the highest in the World Rankings at 139. Imada, who won the final PGA Tour event at TPC Sugarloaf in 2008, is the only one of the five without multiple PGA Tour victories.
Those five are not the only prominent PGA Tour players who have yet to qualify for the 2011 PGA. Most will make it into the field via either the World Rankings or money list, but there are some surprising names in danger of being left out of the final major of the year.
That list includes Fredrik Jacobsen, Carl Pettersson, Henrik Stenson, Chad Campbell, John Rollins and former major champions Justin Leonard, Ben Curtis and Mike Weir. Japan’s Shingo Katayama, who tied for 4th at Atlanta Athletic Club a decade ago, is outside the top 100 in the World Rankings and would likely need a special invitation to return to Atlanta for the PGA Championship.
For most of the state’s PGA Tour contingent, the news is better from a FedExCup standpoint, with one exception.
Slocum, who won The Barclays in 2009, has been one of the PGA Tour’s most consistent performers over the past decade, never finishing outside the top 80 on the money list and placing between 30th and 32nd in earnings three of the last four years. But the first half of the 2011 season has been his poorest stretch of golf since he joined the PGA Tour in late 2001, leaving Slocum outside the top 150 in the FedExCup standings after his eighth missed cut of the year at Colonial.
Bohn, Duval and Imada were outside the top 125, with Bohn also suffering through a difficult season after winning in 2010. Bohn won in New Orleans last year and Slocum captured the inaugural McGladrey Classic title at Sea Island GC, with both needing comparable efforts to turn around what has been the poorest seasons of their PGA Tour careers. Imada made a big move into the top 100 with his recent tie for third in the Byron Nelson Classic.
Thanks to wins in San Diego and New Orleans, Watson was atop the FedExCup standings, with Byrd 12th behind his win in the season-opening Tournament of Champions and playoff loss to former Clemson teammate Lucas Glover in Charlotte.
Kuchar, who was No. 1 on the points list last year before being edged out at East Lake by Jim Furyk, was 16th on the strength of six top 10s, one short of c0-leaders Luke Donald and Hunter Mahan.
After a slow start, Johnson has heated up recently, and moved into the top 40 after placing 4th in the Colonial. Cink has also played his best golf of 2011 in recent weeks and has moved up to just outside the top 50, a few spots ahead of Howell, who is enjoying a steady if unspectacular season.
Kirk, who was 2nd on the Nationwide Tour in 2010, has placed himself in contention for Rookie of the Year honors, with a tie for 2nd in Houston propelling him into the top 40 on the points list.
Matteson and Taylor were both comfortably in the top 100 on the points list, as was second year PGA Tour member Blake Adams, coming off his best showing of the season at Colonial. Love played well in the two high profile tournaments prior to Colonial in Charlotte and Jacksonville, but missed the cut in Fort Worth to drop out of the top 100.
Recent Georgia Tech golfer Cameron Tringale was just inside the top 100, with Georgia native and former Savannah assistant professional Kris Blanks moving up to just outside the top 125 after a top 10 finish in Colonial, his best tournament of 2011.
With three months left in the FedExCup season, there were some very surprising names not among the top 125, including a pair of former Tour Championship winners. Retief Goosen and Camilo Villegas were both outside the top 125, as were 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen and former Players champions Stenson and Stephen Ames.