Sunday, August 15, 2010

Why Dustin Johnson Is The Pick To Win The PGA

Saturday night after the 3rd round of the US Open at Pebble Beach a few months ago, Dustin Johnson held a 3 shot lead, and literally all of the buzz and media coverage was focused on him as well as Tiger Woods, who himself had an amazing round to put himself back in contention.

I was talking with a friend that night and we mentioned that the player to watch out for on Sunday would be Graeme McDowell, because he was also playing great, he was in 2nd place, he had 5 wins on the European Tour and 5 top 20 finishes in majors, and he had the added benefit of being off the radar thanks to the frenzy surrounding Johnson's 3 round dominance and Woods' possible return to greatness. With much less pressure and distraction from the spotlight, it is often these players who are just off the lead, playing well, and just off the radar that are most dangerous in the final round, as it is often easier to focus and execute with less attention & the pressure that comes along with it.

Here we are on Saturday night before the final round of the year's final major, and lo and behold Nick Watney has come out of nowhere to lead the PGA Championship by 3 shots over, you guessed it, Dustin Johnson.  All of the pressure tonight and tomorrow is on Nick Watney, it is his championship to lose, which is exactly where Johnson was at the US Open. But this time around it is Johnson in the McDowell role- playing very well and just under the radar.

Leaderboard courtesy of

Of course, this one factor alone does not make him a good pick to win tomorrow, as there are several players with a chance to win if Watney does not shoot a good round and run away with it himself. But a second dynamic often seen in major championship golf also points to Johnson tomorrow: players who win their first major are often ones who have come close before but failed, and having been in that pressure packed position and learned form it, they then break through in subsequent majors. This is a long-established pattern in golf, which bodes well for Johnson. However, it has its exceptions, like any well-established patterns. Louis Ooshtuizen (British 2010), Lucas Glover (2009 US Open), Ben Curtis (British 2003), Shaun Micheel (2003 PGA), and Rich Beem (2002 PGA) all came out of nowhere and grabbed the brass ring at first asking. On the other end of the spectrum, Phil Mickelson famously came close literally a dozen or so times before winning his first major.

As such, there is no guarantee that Nick Watney (or unknown Chinese golfer Wenchong Liang) won't win the PGA tomorrow in their first visit to the Sunday at a major pressure cooker. After all, Watney finished 7th at the Masters this year and tied for 7th at the British Open, so he has been close but not yet dealt with the pressure of having the lead of a major, or even a great chance to win, when he steps onto the 1st teebox on Sunday.  It is more likely that someone who has been there before and/or is lurking just off the radar will win: I'm picking Dustin Johnson because in this regard he is a dual qualifier.

Other likely candidates if Watney succumbs to the pressure like so many before him have in similar situations:

*Rory McIlroy would be my pick on pure talent, but the only reason I'm picking Johnson over him is that I have a hunch that Johnson will reverse the curse of having the lead and blowing it at the US Open. McIlroy hasn't had the lead, but he did finish tied for third at the 2009 PGA as well as this year's British Open. Make no mistake- he is talented enough to break through and win this tournament and be the next big thing in golf- he has been that good for a while and it seems inevitable that he will make this breakthrough, it's just a matter of when. If Johnson doesn't win tomorrow I think he will.

*Wenchong Liang has the ultimate under the radar mojo going on, as no one knows who he is, even after his course record 8-under 64 today to put him in a tie for 4th place. However, I think it'll be a stretch for him to stand up to the pressure tomorrow- he doesn't have the pedigree of last year's winner Y.E. Yang, who famously slayed Tiger but had been in contention and won big tournaments before but was still off the radar of the mainstream golf world.

*Jason Day- same as Liang

*Martin Kaymar- Although he did finish tied for 6th at the PGA last year, he was never really in contention and for me is still in the same group as Day & Liang above

*Jim Furyk, Steve Elkington, Zach Johnson are all major champions who have been here before and know how to win. They would all need Watney to stumble to have a chance, but if he does all three have the experience to pull this off.

Hard to see anyone at 7-under or lower winning unless Watney completely falls apart and something special happens for one of them to leapfrog all 10 golfers in front of them.

The final round is on CBS from 11am - 4pm, with the final group schedules to tee off at 11.35am PST. Enjoy.

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