PGA Championship 2014: Separating Contenders from Pretenders Before Final Round
Heading into the final round of the PGA Championship, it's anyone's game...sort of. The narrative is a far cry from what the story seemed like it would be entering Sunday at Valhalla.
It appeared after Friday's round that Saturday's action would be another act in the drama of Rory McIlroy's fourth career major, with the Ulsterman running away from the field as he's done in all three of his major wins.
Not so this week. A number of other players availed themselves of Valhalla's soft conditions Saturday. At one point, five players were tied for the lead, and five more were within one stroke.
After the smoke cleared, however, Rory McIlroy had managed to maintain his perch atop the leaderboard thanks to three birdies on his final four holes.
Entering the final round, eight golfers are within four strokes of the lead. Who among them will contend Sunday? Who doesn't have a prayer of lifting the Wanamaker?
Read on to see.
Pretender: Jim Furyk
No matter what Jim Furyk does during the first three rounds of a golf tournament, odds are he won't be able to come away with victory Sunday. Memories of his inability to seal the deal at the 2012 U.S. Open have to be fresh in the Pennsylvania native's mind as nears the top of a major championship leaderboard Sunday.
Furyk has played three very good rounds of golf. There's no doubting that fact. An opening-round 66 followed by a 68 and steady play on Saturday have the 44-year-old positioned six strokes behind Rory McIlroy entering the final round.
Ultimately, Furyk doesn't hit the ball far enough to contend in wet conditions. And with three of four rounds of this tournament likely to be contested on soggy fairways, Furyk, who is averaging 279.2 yards off the tee this year (ranked No. 162), isn't hitting it long enough to put himself in position to knock down flagsticks.
Prediction: It's tough to see Furyk going more than two or three under Sunday. That score should be enough to notch him a top-10 finish, however.
Contender: Louis Oosthuizen
Louis Oosthuizen's most notable accomplishment through Friday at the PGA Championship was winning the long-drive competition, which the PGA of America held for the first time in quite a while.
The South African opened with 70 and followed up with 67. After a third-round 67, which included five birdies and just one bogey, though, Oosthuizen found himself in the clubhouse at nine under par.
Through three rounds, he's averaging 300.6 yards off the tee and hitting 74.1 percent of greens in regulation. If his putter gets hot Sunday, King Louis could march to the second major victory of his career.
Prediction: Oosthuizen has a Sunday 66 or 67 in him. If the players ahead of him stall, watch out. Realistically, he should finish in the top five.
Pretender: Ryan Palmer
Ryan Palmer, who has just one career top-10 finish at the majors, unexpectedly found himself at the top of the PGA Championship leaderboard after an opening-round 65. He followed up the six-under tally with a respectable 70 in the second round.
Entering Saturday, the question on everyone's mind with respect to Palmer was "Will his luck run out?"
Over the closing holes Saturday, it did just that. The Texan bogeyed the 17th hole and carded a disappointing par at the 18th. At nine under, he'll begin the final round four strokes behind Rory McIlroy.
Prediction: Under less pressure, Palmer should have no problem matching his Saturday score. That should be enough to place him inside the top 10 at tournament's end.
Contender: Jason Day
Jason Day has been a beast in major championships since joining the PGA Tour. He's notched seven top-10 finishes in 16 starts in professional golf's most significant tournaments.
Through three rounds at Valhalla, Jason Day stands at 10 under, three strokes behind Rory McIlroy. He made a ridiculous par at the second hole Saturday that had to be seen to be believed. You can't bet against a guy who's willing to wade into marsh to play his golf ball rather than take a penalty stroke.
Ben Everill of The Sydney Morning Herald described the episode: "After hooking his drive on the second hole way left into dense knee-high cabbage, and needing to wade across a creek to find it, Day wedged out into the right rough, hit his third to 10 feet and buried the putt."
Day was all over the place at Valhalla on Saturday. However, a closing birdie righted his ship, and he'll be poised to hunt down Rory McIlroy on Sunday.
Prediction: Jason Day hit just 43 percent of fairways Saturday and still shot 69. He'll do better than that Sunday, and when he does, he'll make a run at the lead. Expect Day to finish in the top five.
Pretender: Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson entered the 2014 PGA Championship feeling confident about his game. Through three rounds, it seems Lefty's confidence was warranted. Playing alongside Tiger Woods Thursday and Friday, Mickelson put himself in position for the weekend with rounds of 69 and 67.
Through three rounds, Mickelson is hitting nearly 62 percent of fairways. When he does that, he can contend. Unfortunately for the 44-year-old, he'll begin the final round behind a horde of younger, hotter golfers to have a chance at lifting the Wanamaker.
Although he brought a thrill to the Kentucky fans with four birdies in his final five holes, Mickelson isn't going to close a three-stroke gap Sunday.
Prediction: Mickelson will give it his all and come up just short. However, unless he implodes, he'll get his first top-10 finish of the year.
Contender: Rickie Fowler
Much has been made of Rickie Fowler's play in major championships this year, and it's deserved considering he finished inside the top 10 in all of them. Through three rounds at Valhalla, the California native seems poised to make it 4-of-4.
Fowler was flawless in his outward nine Saturday, carding two birdies and no bogeys. When he headed to the back nine, he seized a share of Rory McIlroy's lead with a birdie at the 10th hole.
Fowler's bogey-free 67 leaves him two strokes behind leader Rory McIlroy entering the final round.
Prediction: It's hard to bet against Fowler putting together a quality round Sunday. It's simply what he does at majors on Sunday this year. Top-five finish for Fowler, for sure.
Pretender: Bernd Wiesberger
"Bernd who?" golf fans in the United States collectively asked when the Austrian surged to the top of the leaderboard Saturday. He whipped the same fans who likely didn't know his name prior to the tournament into a frenzy with this nearly holed approach at the 17th hole.
As Gary Van Sickle of Sports Illustrated wrote about the end of Wiesberger's round on Saturday, "It was impressive stuff, even if some pressroom golf writers were still busy cracking jokes about his name."
Wiesberger carded a bogey-free 65 in the third round to position himself at 12 under, giving him plenty of confidence going into Sunday.
"I know what I'm capable of doing," he told reporters after his round on Saturday. "I know if I drive the ball well and don't get ahead of myself, I can play good golf."
Unfortunately for Wiesberger, it will take a heaping helping of mental fortitude in addition to quality play off the tee to win a major championship. And with this being just the second time the European Tour competitor has made the cut in a major, he isn't yet in possession of that quality.
Prediction: Wiesberger will fade from view during the final round but will still manage to record his first top-15 finish in a major.
Contender: Rory McIlroy
As the most recent major winner, Rory McIlroy would be poised to contend if we were anywhere near the top of the leaderboard. And since he's perched at the very top, he is the surest contender entering the final round.
McIlroy has been booming the ball off the tee this week, and his carry distance has given him a huge advantage over the field in soggy conditions at Valhalla. Through three rounds, McIlroy is averaging 315 yards off the tee and hitting plenty of fairways in the process.
The only concerning shot he hit during the third round was his pull-hooked tee shot off the fourth tee. However, McIlroy saved par with a lengthy putt on that hole, turning a potential momentum killer into a positive result. Beyond his quality play through three rounds, the episode indicated that not only is McIlroy poised to win the PGA Championship, but he refuses to lose it.
With three birdies in his final four holes, McIlroy stated his case to his challengers Saturday.
Prediction: McIlroy leads the tournament by one stroke entering the final round. Can you think of a good reason to bet against the best golfer on the planet winning this tournament? McIlroy will raise the Wanamaker for the second time in his career.
All stats courtesy of PGATour.com.