A total of 156 players will tee it up this week at the 2023 PGA Championship. Despite what history may suggest, not all 156 golfers have a realistic chance to raise the Wanamaker Trophy by week's end at Oak Hill Country Club. There are 20 PGA professionals, a number of past champions who are there for a joy ride and those that play either on the PGA Tour, DP World Tour or LIV Golf and are simply out of form.
Now, every trend has its buster, and I would be remiss to not discuss the elephant in the room: Phil Mickelson in 2021. Mickelson defied all conventional wisdom en route to his historic victory at Kiawah Island, but there were some tell-tale signs that the then 50-year-old wasn't all that far off.
Jimmy Walker was considered a surprise in 2016 at Baltusrol Golf Club five years prior, going wire-to-wire and successfully holding defending champion Jason Day at bay. However, outside these two names, the other champions have been rather predictable -- those who have played well for prolonged periods, past major champions and more than capable on golf's grandest stage.
With all that in mind, let's take a look back at the 10 most recent winners of the PGA Championship and identify what trends exist as we attempt to whittle down the field of 156 players to pinpoint this year's champion.
1. Official World Golf Rankings
The PGA Championship is not excluded from the OWGR drama as players and fans alike discuss the merits of specific players gaining entry into the field. World No. 128 Beau Hossler and world No. 131 Paul Casey find themselves with tee times for Thursday and Friday but without a real opportunity to actually win. Outside Mickelson, who was world No. 115 at the time of his win in 2021, the other nine champions were ranked inside the top 50 in the world with seven checking inside the top 12. That seems like a nice starting point.
Eliminated: Those outside the top 50 of the OWGR, notably including Mito Pereira, Talor Gooch, Gary Woodland, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Thorbjorn Olesen, Robert MacIntyre.
2. Course may change, stakes do not
The PGA Championship has moved in more ways than one over the last 10 years. Not only does the championship rotate golf courses, but it has also moved up from August to May on the calendar with the switch taking effect in 2019. Regardless, quality in this championship in particular has proven to be an important barometer. Nine of the last 10 champions had a top-20 finish to their name with the lone exception being Collin Morikawa, who won in his debut appearance in 2020.
Eliminated: Viktor Hovland, Tom Kim, Kurt Kitayama, Sahith Theegala, Joaquin Niemann, Wyndham Clark, Sepp Straka, Ryan Fox, K.H. Lee, Taylor Moore, Adrian Meronk
3. What have you done for me lately?
Major champions rarely pop up unannounced, and even Mickelson had flashed some form in 2021. The six-time major champion won a couple times on the Champions Tour in the fall and actually held the first-round lead at the Wells Fargo Championship two weeks prior to his victory. Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Justin Thomas (2017) had already claimed multiple victories while Brooks Koepka (2018) and Morikawa entered the winner's circle within the last handful of starts. Nine of the last 10 winners had at least one top-five finish under their belt during the calendar year.
Eliminated: Brian Harman, Seamus Power, Rickie Fowler
4. Major-championship pedigree
Seven of the last 10 winners had at least a runner-up performance in a major championship on their résumé. The last winner at Oak Hill, Jason Dufner, lost in a playoff to Keegan Bradley two years prior at Atlanta Athletic Club. Day finished runner up to Justin Rose alongside Mickelson at the 2013 U.S. Open. McIlroy, Koepka, Mickelson and Thomas (2022) were already major champions. Once again, Morikawa bucks this trend -- it was only his second major championship -- but nine of the last 10 winners had at least one top-10 finish in a major championship.
Eliminated: Max Homa, Sam Burns, Si Woo Kim, Lucas Herbert
5. Let's get technical
If finishing positions just don't do it for you anymore, strokes-gained data is likely your vice. All 10 champions were averaging positive strokes gained per round over the last three months with Mickelson and Walker bringing up the rear with +0.43 and +0.04, respectively. When looking at this, it makes sense they flew in under the radar, but the same cannot be said for Day (+2.03), Koepka in 2018 (+2.09), Thomas in 2022 (+2.36) and McIlroy (+2.86). Altogether, this group of champions averaged +1.60 strokes gained per round -- the benchmark we will be utilizing much to the dismay of many recent major champions.
Eliminated: Matt Fitzpatrick, Cameron Smith, Collin Morikawa, Tommy Fleetwood, Hideki Matsuyama, Keegan Bradley, Shane Lowry, Corey Conners, Tom Hoge, Justin Rose, Chris Kirk, Harris English, Adam Scott, Abraham Ancer, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed
… and just like that, we are down to 14 players ...
6. Speak softly and carry a big stick
Early reports out of Oak Hill have keyed on the importance of off-the-tee play, which honestly isn't too much of a shock. Whether distance or accuracy, it is apparent that for players to thrive on the newly renovated golf course one must be elite in one or the other with a preference for both. The last 10 winners have averaged +0.59 strokes gained off the tee in the three months leading up to the championship with McIlroy (+1.66) setting the highest mark. While world No. 1 Jon Rahm may ultimately go down as one of the best drivers of the golf ball to grace the sport, the Masters champion falls agonizingly short of the +0.59 strokes gained clip coming in at … +0.582 (those pesky decimals).
Eliminated: Jon Rahm, Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth, Tony Finau, Russell Henley, Jason Day, Matt Kuchar
7. Iron it out
En route to a then-record-tying 63 in the second round of the 2012 PGA Championship, Dufner relied heavily on his irons. Good for the course record, Dufner's 63 showcased what elite approach play can do for a player around Oak Hill. He came into the week having averaged +1.27 strokes gained approach per round -- tops among the 10 most recent champions, who combined averaged for 0.63 strokes gained approach per round.
Eliminated: Rory McIlroy, Sungjae Im
That leaves us with ...
five golfers from a field of 156: Scottie Scheffler, Patrick Cantlay, Justin Thomas, Cameron Young and Tyrrell Hatton. Each have their pros and cons. Scheffler was gaining more than three strokes on the field per round before the Byron Nelson, and he is the only player of this bunch to win this year. Cantlay looks to be the most well rounded throughout the bag. Thomas has won two of the last six PGA Championships, including last year. Young has two podium finishes and a top-10 result in his last four major championships, while Hatton seems to do his best work on the most difficult tests. Scheffler is the obvious choice, but don't sleep on Cantlay, whose best major result came in the state of New York in 2019.
Who will win the PGA Championship, and which longshots will stun the golfing world? Visit SportsLine to see the projected PGA Championship leaderboard, all from the model that's nailed nine golf majors, including this year's Masters.