Rory McIlroy didn’t spend much time celebrating his wire-to-wire victory at the British Open.
Then again, he didn’t have a lot of time.
Just 18 days after the engraver etched his name into the silver claret jug, McIlroy tees off in final major of the year at the PGA Championship, which returns this year to Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky.
The PGA Championship used to be known as ”Glory’s Last Shot” until it went away from that slogan. Now, the PGA of America promotes the final major as having the strongest field in golf (everyone from the top 108 in the world qualified or was invited) with the richest purse ($10 million, with $1.8 million going to the winner).
Picking a winner is about as easy as throwing darts blindfolded.
Keegan Bradley won in 2011 in the first major he ever played. Tiger Woods has won four times. And perhaps the most famous PGA winner was John Daly, who was the ninth alternate in 1991 when he got into the field at Crooked Stick and introduced golf to his ”grip it and rip it” style of play.
Here are five things to look for when the 2014 major championship season comes to a close:
1. TIGER’S LAST CHANCE
For the sixth straight year, Tiger Woods goes to the PGA Championship with his last chance to win a major. But there’s even more at stake this year.
Depending on how he fares at Firestone, this could be the final event of the season for Woods. Having missed three months because of a back injury, and playing poorly even before the March 31 surgery, he needs a big week at Valhalla to get into the FedEx Cup playoffs, and possibly to persuade Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson that he can contribute to the American cause.
Woods has history at Valhalla. He won the PGA Championship in 2000 by making a 6-foot birdie putt on the last hole to force a playoff with Bob May, and then beating him to capture his third straight major. It was one of the most exciting back nines in PGA history.
2. RORY ON THE RISE
Rory McIlroy looked lost for so much of the year until two big weeks in England.
First, he won the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in late May, the same week that he announced he had broken off his engagement with Caroline Wozniacki. Then, the 25-year-old from Northern Ireland led from start to finish at Royal Liverpool to win The Open.
McIlroy hopes this is the start of another big run.
He will try to become only the sixth player – including Woods twice – to win the final two majors of the year. The last player to achieve that feat was another Irishman – Padraig Harrington in 2008.
3. VALHALLA THEATER
Valhalla was designed by Jack Nicklaus and it is owned by the PGA of America, which explains why it is getting its third major event.
It has not lacked for drama.
At the 1996 PGA Championship, Kentucky native Kenny Perry looked to be the winner and was in the broadcast booth when Mark Brooks caught him and forced a playoff. Brooks won in sudden-death, raising questions whether Perry should have been on the range instead of a TV tower.
Woods and May put on such an incredible show that May was tied for the lead, shot 31 on the back nine and still ended up losing.
Not to be forgotten is the 2008 Ryder Cup, the only time the Americans won since 1999. One of the key moments came from Hunter Mahan, who rolled in a 60-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole that secured a half-point.
4. RYDER CUP
Every two years, there are two tournaments in one at the PGA Championship.
This is the final event for Americans to qualify for the Ryder Cup, with the top nine in the standings earning a spot on the team. It will go to the 10th spot now that Dustin Johnson is out for the rest of the season. Woods was at No. 70 going into Firestone and likely would need to be a captain’s pick. The focus shifts to Phil Mickelson, who was No. 11. Mickelson already holds the U.S. record by playing on nine straight teams, and he has qualified for every one of them. Two years ago, he got the last spot.
Six Americans from the 2012 team were not eligible going into the PGA Championship.
5. EUROPEAN SUCCESS
Europe had gone 78 years without winning the PGA Championship until Padraig Harrington of Ireland won at Oakland Hills in 2008. That was the start of Europeans winning three of the last six times. But there’s even more at stake at Valhalla.
Martin Kaymer of Germany won the U.S. Open. McIlroy won the British Open. Europe has never had three players win majors in the same year. And with players like Henrik Stenson (Sweden), Justin Rose (England) and Sergio Garcia (Spain) in good form, there are plenty of candidates.