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PGA Championship 2015 picks and predictions: Rory McIlroy returns and Jordan Spieth goes for ‘American slam’

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PGA Championship 2015 picks and predictions: Rory McIlroy returns and Jordan Spieth goes for ‘American slam’

The PGA Championship got a huge boost last weekend when world No. 1 Rory McIlroy showed up to practice. A week before that, Rory seemed like a longshot to make his return to the game in time for the season’s final major. But he’s back for one last 2015 chance to add to his career tally of 4 major titles.

The PGA sometimes gets lost in the shuffle because the other three majors have such an instantly recognizable identity. But in recent years, it’s often delivered some of the best drama and most exciting final rounds of the majors season. Rory’s return, and the PGA of America’s decision to pair him up with Jordan Spieth for the opening round, amplified the hype. It’s also on a fantastically scenic and world class venue in Whistling Straits. The SB Nation golf staff bats around some picks and predictions for the week.

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Has Rory McIlroy come back too soon? What are your expectations for the world No. 1?

Brendan: It sounds like he was ready and wanted to play last week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational but his doctor reined him in and pushed the return to the PGA Championship. Everything does seem to be back in working order and it’s hard to criticize him for doing anything wrong. I do think some effects of the injury may pop up late in the weekend after walking around this place for a full week and playing more competitive rounds. But no, he hasn’t rushed back and he should be fine and back to contending at the game’s biggest events.

Mark: As long as he’s healthy, which it sounds like he is, then I don’t think so. Not unless you think shaking off rust in a major is a bad idea. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had a very rough week as he regains his feel, but he has to go through that at some point, so if he’s healthy why not play.

Trevor: If his ankle is 100 percent like he says it is, I think he should play well and be a factor over the weekend. [golf emoji] [thumbs up emoji]

Emily: Probably. He has gone overboard to prove to everyone that his ankle is as strong as ever, bouncing all over the course, but four days of traversing the treacherous terrain of Whistling Straits will take its toll. No doubt he’ll contend but will be shaking off some rust as he keeps a close eye on Jordan Spieth’s bid to replace him at No. 1 and pull off the American Slam.

Eric: I don’t think he’s rushed his return. From the videos and pictures he’s been sending out, he seems to be confident enough in his recovery. I don’t think he’d be in Wisconsin if he wasn’t. That being said, having Whistling Straits be the course you get back to action on is interesting, given that few shots will come from an even line. I don’t expect him to struggle significantly, but I think knocking off physical and competitive rust is a real hurdle and that may keep him from making any serious push on the weekend.

Who is your darkhorse pick to win, or just contend? (Ideally odds that are 80/1 or higher)

Mark: Danny Lee didn’t find success at The Open, but he’s otherwise playing really well. At 100/1 he seems like a nice gamble. Four top-six finishes including a win in his last five events.

Eric: I don’t think he’ll win, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Justin Thomas (100/1) is hanging around the first page of the leaderboard at the end.

Brendan: Marc Leishman seems to be a guy with great value at 100/1. He’s been really hit-or-miss this season and after middling result last week in Akron, now it’s time to make a another run to the top of a leaderboard, right? Thomas will be a trendy and nice pick but I’ll back Leishman as a darkhorse here. Bill Haas at 100/1 also seems like a good value.

Any rookies or first-time PGA Championship players to keep an eye on or that you expect to make a run at the top 10?

Mark: Tony Finau has played some really impressive golf at times this season. He was right in the mix at the U.S. Open before finishing T14. I think he could make a similar run this week and he’s got that distance off the tee we always tout as such an advantage.

Brendan: David Lingmerth has just one PGA start and only three major starts, but he has the form to settle on the first page of the leaderboard for a good chunk of the week. The obvious rookie pick is Thomas, the long-hitting Alabama product who has been so impressive in his first season on the Tour.

Eric: He may not finish around the top 10, but Kevin Kisner could make some noise this week in his first PGA Championship. He’s had a solid season and I think his success at Chambers Bay may be helpful at Whistling Straits.

Does Tiger Woods have a chance? Will he make the cut?

Emily: Even Tiger says things can get “ugly” for players unable to keep the ball in play at Whistling Straits. For someone who did not fare well at Sheboygan’s links-like track (T24 at the 2004 PGA, T28 in 2010) before his game became a crap shoot and his tee shots failed to find fair territory, it’s likely to be another short week marked by an unprecedented third consecutive missed cut at a major, and the end of another lost season for the erstwhile world No. 1.

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Trevor: I made it perfectly clear that I am done with Tiger after his disappointing performance at St. Andrews. In 2004 and 2010, he was incredibly average at Whistling Straits. His misses off the tee have caused problems for him all year and I expect to see more of the same this week. Maybe he will be close to making the cut, but I feel confident in saying he misses the weekend and we won’t see him again until December.

Mark: He’s coming off his best showing in a long while, which is encouraging. I don’t think his game is in a place where he can play championship golf for four rounds. Maybe two or three, but not four. I don’t think he has a shot to contend. If he plays well early, I could see him making the cut and even hovering around the top 10 before fading on the weekend.

Eric: I feel pretty confident that he won’t make the cut. I don’t think that Whistling Straits is going to be forgiving to his shaky drives, and there hasn’t been enough consistency from Tiger to make me think he’s going to put together four quality rounds. But hey, I’m willing to be proven wrong.

Brendan: I thought for sure he would post a respectable, if not contending, result at the British Open. Now we get another major where he’s coming off an improved week at a lesser PGA Tour event, his own Quicken Loans National. I don’t think it means anything, though, and expect Tiger to miss his third straight major championship cut thanks to a couple days of wild drives.

Photo via Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Which big name, or names, are the best candidates to disappoint and exit before the weekend?

Brendan: Sadly, Mickelson is my choice here. He’s just not grooving it right now. That was the case last year and there he was in the darkness pushing Rory to the limit at Valhalla. I think Phil makes the cut, but he’s done early each weekend day and goes away quietly to finish a disappointing summer at the majors.

Mark: Bubba Watson is playing really good golf this year, but that hasn’t translated to majors. Since winning the 2014 Masters, he’s missed four of six major cuts and hasn’t finished better than T38. He hasn’t broken 70 in eight major championship rounds this season. He played very well at Whistling Straits in 2010, but just doesn’t seem to be up to majors recently. This could be the week that changes, or he might miss a third straight major cut.

Trevor: I think Phil might have a tough time. Except for a top 5 finish at the St. Jude Classic, he hasn’t played well this summer. Going T65, T64, T20, and T63 doesn’t give me a lot of confidence heading into this week.

The PGA has provided some of the best major championship drama of the past five years. But is the PGA still the fourth major? If last, why? Is its rep warranted?

Brendan: It’s fourth because the media assigns it that place. It also still lacks some identity that people in the press harp on, but I think it’s better than the drudgery of the U.S. Open. At the U.S. Open, the focus is always on the course and the conditions. It’s harder to shoot a low number and make a late run on the weekend. The only leaderboard movement is usually some guy tumbling downward with bogeys or an implosion.

The PGA keeps delivering perfect tests for the best fields in the world. Birdies are fun! It’s good to have leaderboard movement and the opportunity for a mid-60s round that brings more big names and the best talents back into it. We saw this all weekend at Valhalla, which was incredible over those manic last 36 holes and delivered a shootout among the best in the game. The PGA takes a beating but it’s perfectly executed and set up right now. A major does not need to be a slog.

Trevor: It’s hard to compete with the history and traditions of the other majors so I think the fourth major title is warranted. That being said, I don’t remember a time when the best in the world have been playing so well at the same time. Spieth, McIlroy, Fowler, Rose, Bubba … they are all in top form which should make for some great drama this weekend.

Eric: If I were to rank them, I’d go Masters, PGA Championship, Open Championship, U.S. Open, so that answers whether I think it’s last or not. Being in August doesn’t help its case, but I think by this point in the season you’re usually getting the best players rising towards the top of the best field, so I don’t see how you could consider it the fourth major.

Emily: The PGA lacks the cachet of the other three grand slam events but it has not historically lacked for theatrics. This year is no different, what with story lines that include Rory’s comeback, the Summer of Spieth, and the ongoing mystery surrounding Tiger’s game.

What will be the winning score? What’s your opinion of Whistling Straits, a place that the PGA of America and this major have clearly staked a claim to?

Eric: I think the score will be closer to the 2010 finish (-11) than the 2004 finish (-8). I’ll even go up a bit and say 12-under wins the tournament. The forecast doesn’t call for a ton of wind, so I think the course is going to be more fair than people expect, even if it does dry out a bit heading into the weekend.

I’m biased since I live in Wisconsin, but I think Whistling Straits is a really great test. It will allow you a low score if you play it wisely, but can also punish you, especially in the final four holes. That stretch has set up great finishes in the previous two championships held here, and I expect another one this week. I’m excited.

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Mark: I like the course and think it’s a fun, but fair test for a PGA Championship. The bunkers draw a lot of attention – especially when they draw penalties – but I don’t think they diminish the course. I think the design forces players to hit good shots and gives adequate penalties when they don’t which is exactly what a major championship course should do. Play well and you can post a number. Play poorly and it can turn bad very quickly. I think the winning score drops slightly this year. I’ll say 7-under.

Where does Jordan Spieth finish? Does he complete the American Slam and if so, would it be the greatest season ever?

Emily: The PGA has a history of producing the most one-hit wonders of the four majors – 33, according to Dan Jenkins, who notes the Masters is runner-up with 15. Spieth will come close, as he did at the St. Andrews, but there will be no American Slam this year. And even if there were, Tiger owns the greatest season ever, with three major victories and seven worldwide Ws overall in 2000.

Mark: Until Jordan Spieth doesn’t contend, I expect him to contend. He has to be the favorite heading in. His mindset and the way he approaches majors gives him a shot to win every one. I would still say Tiger in 2000 is tops, regardless of what Spieth does. Spieth has been great this season, but he hasn’t dominated courses and fields the way Tiger did in 2000.

Trevor: I think Spieth will be close. The only thing that worries me is that the PGA is notorious for some, uh, interesting winners. A guy like Y.E. Yang or Shaun Micheel could always sneak up and steal one at the PGA.

If Spieth does take home the Wanamaker, I still think I put him second to Tiger in 2000. Tiger won by such decisive margins at the US and British Opens and I think that puts him slightly ahead of Spieth.

Eric: He’ll be in the top 10 but won’t win, so he won’t be completing the American Slam. If he did though, it’s hard to argue that three major wins and a putt for a chance at a playoff in the fourth isn’t right up there for the greatest. I wouldn’t say it’s the best because Spieth hasn’t necessarily been dominant in victory, but the results would firmly put him in the discussion.

Brendan: I doubted his ability to contend at St. Andrews and the way he kept coming back from a poor bogey or double bogey was the most impressive thing I’ve seen this year. The way he is rolling, it’s stupid to say he won’t be in the mix on Sunday. Like the others, I think he’ll be close. But the odds of an American Slam are long.

If Spieth does somehow win another one, I think it’s the second-best season ever behind Tiger’s 2000. This becomes a “First Take” style debate real quick, but the margin and start-to-finish dominace of that entire season is the greatest year we will ever see. The fields maaaay be deeper now, but Tiger will always be the standard unless someone wins a Grand Slam.

Who wins the Wanamaker Trophy?

Eric: I think one of the “bridesmaids” is going to break through and capture their first major this weekend. It’d be a great story if Dustin Johnson could win – especially at this venue – but he’s had a few funky rounds of late that won’t let me pull the trigger. I’m going to take Jason Day. I eagerly await Jim Nantz shouting, ” And finally, Jason has his day!”

Mark: Spieth is heaving the best year of anyone, but Louis Oosthuizen has played some unbelievable major championship golf. He shot in the 60s in six of his last seven major rounds including five rounds of 67 or better. He would have won the U.S. Open had he not gotten off to a terrible start. I think it all comes together and he wins this week. He deserves a victory after back-to-back runner ups.

Trevor: I’ll go with Rickie Fowler. He let me down at St. Andrews, but hey, he’s got to win one of these eventually.

Emily: If he can keep his desperate desire to win a major under control, Jason Day will lift that apparently really heavy piece of hardware on Sunday. If not, those nine top-10 finishes (and counting) in grand slam events will weigh heavily on the Aussie and capturing a major may become as onerous for Day as winning the U.S. Open is for Phil Mickelson.

Brendan: The great thing about this season is there are so many wonderful and plausible options at each big event. Many of them are in their 20s or just starting to ascend and quickly erase the fondness for the Tiger era. Day seems like the smartest choice, but I’ll go with former major winner Justin Rose. The Englishman is in form, has the game to move around in the air and hit the targets of Whistling Straits, and consistently proves he plays best on the toughest courses in the tougher conditions. His worst result in his last three starts is a 6th place finish at The Open. I like Rose to get a Wanamaker to pair with his U.S. Open Trophy.

★★★

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