John: Obviously, number one, especially given his performances over the last two weeks, is Tiger Woods. It’s kind of like it’s Tiger Woods and everybody else. Some more big names that others are talking about – Vijay [Singh], Padraig Harrington, as we saw in his performance last week at Bridgestone, seems to have gotten his form back at the right time. He played really, really well except for the 16th hole last week and he has the experience with the three majors that he’s won. He’s always a possibility. And, the usual suspects like Jim Furyk. Those are my three guys, right there.
Billy: Jim Furyk or Steve Stricker or I would also look at Lee Westwood. His name keeps coming to mind. He’s never won a major championship, but he has the game. Look at the way he played the Open Championship. He’s out of the playoff by a shot and he bogeyed on the last 4 holes. Yes, had a birdie in there on the 71st hole, a par 5, but he should have a major championship on his resume already. He’s one guy we should take a good, hard look at. Or, maybe it’s a young guy – a [Camilo] Villegas, Sean O’Hair, or Anthony Kim.
Q: Do you think there will be a potential “dark horse” at the Championship this year? If so, who do you think it will be?
John: I can see it happening. Who that might be, well, that’s why they are called dark horses because no one knows who it’s going to be, but I’ve got a feeling about a couple. I think Brian Gay has played great this year with a couple of wins. It’ll be interesting to see how he does. A couple other names that are in my head, for no real particular reason, are Charles Howell III if he can drive it up the fairway I think has a good chance. I also like Paul Casey and I like Matt Kuchar for some reason. I don’t know why, but his name is sticking in my head.
Q: At 7,674 yards, Hazeltine is brutally long. In your opinion, do the short drivers with otherwise excellent games have a chance, or are they just too handicapped by the distance this week?
Q: How do you assess Rich Beem’s chances?
Billy: Where he fits into the equation is this is where he won his first and only championship, I think that plays a big part. I think he gets an energy and confidence boost once he steps on the property. What are his chances? I’d say they are very slim [laughs] especially given the fact that Tiger Woods and other highly-ranked guys are playing well at the same time. To win here again, it will take a bigger strike of lightening than what happened the first time.
Q: Billy, do you have any advice for handling first-tee nerves (and nerves in general)?
Billy: Everyone handles it differently. A lot of these sports psychologists today say athletes handle nerves with a routine. They tend to block out the fact that there’s extra people on the tee watching them tee off, and focus on their routines. The more that you can go to your routine, and just hit the shot you normally hit, the better off you will be. I think people get in trouble when they think, “Well, I just hope I can put it out there.” Think of your plan – if you want to hit a hook or a draw, and try to get the shot. If you hit it, fine, and if you don’t, it’s not a big deal. Never try to do anything from a negative to get a positive.
Q: Billy, if you were still playing, what would your game plan be this week?
Billy: I would really concentrate on distance control and, by that, I am referring to the par 5 holes that you can’t reach. Also, the par 3s that are over 200 yards. The 8th hole and 17th hole, they are in the 175, 180 range. Because the rough isn’t that penalizing from what I’ve seen, a lot of it would be distance control. The more times you can put it flag high or just underneath the hole, you’ll benefit from it.
Q: What about Ernie Els? He played well last weekend, was 8th at the Open, but hasn’t done much else this year. Do you think he will win another major?
John: I think he can because at 40-years-old he’s hitting that point where it’s now or never. He’s getting up there, I still think he has the game. I think he’s got to overcome his putter, which is what has let him down. Particularly at the Open, he missed a couple of short putts that could have turned the tide for him. Whether he does it here or not remains to be seen. Personally, I would love to see him do it because I like Ernie a lot.
Billy: If Ernie Els was in contention early, I’m not sure if he could sustain it. He really hasn’t done anything as of late, and he’s gone through the swing change. I just don’t think that all of sudden Ernie is going to be able to turn it around. There’s a lot going on with Ernie and I don’t think his golf game is there right now. I’d give him a slim chance this week.
Q: What do you think of the chances of young players like Camilo Villegas and Rory McIlroy?
As for Rory, I can see that happening very soon. Rory is an unbelievable talent for his age. He won a European event when he was 19-years-old. He seems un-phased coming out on this stage, which is totally different than anything young players have ever been exposed to before. Where could I see him winning? I think the best place, where he would have the most experience and where his game would be made for, would be the Open Championship. I like him at Augusta, too. I don’t know why. Here at Hazeltine – it’s possible. We’ll see. He definitely has the length. He’s one of the longest players on the tour, so it’s a matter of how all the breaks fall into place, which is true for ever player. You have to get the break to win any major championship.
Billy: Both are good players. Villegas has played well on several occasions this year. He’s young. I saw him at the championship this year, along with [Ryo] Ishikawa, I thought they both showed their rookie sides of it. They saw their mistakes and didn’t take advantage. I felt that they were playing by the seat of the pants. But, McIlroy is the real deal. He’s going to be a good player for some time. Fundamentally, mechanically, when it comes to the golf swing – he’s as good as it gets. He drives it relatively straight and long. He’s a nice young man. I think he’s a great putter, even at a young age. He’s so young that I would say early in his career, he’s off to a start we anticipated when we first saw him a couple of weeks. He has the length this week. To win a PGA championship, people need the breaks. That’s the unknown right now – who’s going to get the breaks.
Q: Phil Mickelson has had an interesting year both on and off the course. Last week, his play was up and down – is he ready for this last major?
John: A lot of folks here are actually picking him to win. He played so great at the U.S. Open. It was such an emotional return for him there, and of course he is going to have the same emotion here. I saw him warming up on the range, and the crowds were unbelievable – the support for him and how appreciative fans are to see him here. I think it’s all going to come down to what kind of start he gets off to this weekend. If he gets off to a strong start, he could be there. If not, I think with of all the emotion of what he’s going through could make it tough for him to come back. I think a good start is critical for his chances this week.
Q: John, what are your top goals for PGA.com during the tournament this week?
John: Obviously, our goal, as it is for every tournament and major we do, is to provide the best coverage of the tournament that we can. We have a stable of world-class writers that will be providing daily stories and updates on PGA.com.
We are also really excited about some of the new features added this year. We have updated our design, and users will find when they log on to the site, our main story section now includes up to five stories in one slot. We now have the ability to play video right there on the homepage, which is very exciting for us. It’s going to be exciting for readers to stay on the homepage and play video right there. Our player operates exclusive videos that no one else will have, which is very important to us.
On top of video coverage, we have our PGA Championship Live, which is exclusive, streaming coverage of the tournament. We will have the simulcast streaming of TNT’s broadcast available right on our site. We also have our Marquee Group Following where we’ll be following one group in the morning and one in the afternoon. We will be following Tiger’s group with Rich Beem and Padraig Harrington both Thursday and Friday. One new feature we’ve added is a poll where we are asking users to tell us which other group they want us to cover with our Marquee Coverage, so we’ve got a choice between a few other threesomes so users can go onto our site and cast their vote. The group the fans vote for is the one we will be covering.
Then we’ve got coverage of the par 3 holes. We also have four different windows of coverage that will be on-demand, instructional and have other features from our video coverage. We’re really excited about everything we’re offering this week. I think our users are going to find a new experience and it’s going to be one unlike that they’ve found for coverage of any other major championship.