PGA Championship Contenders & Pretenders
Is Phil Mickelson a contender or pretender heading into the weekend of the 2021 PGA Championship? Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

2021 PGA Championship: Contenders & Pretenders Heading into the Weekend

The leaderboard of the 2021 PGA Championship is very crowded heading into the weekend. Phil Mickelson and Louis Oosthuizen lead the pack at 5-under, but plenty of stars sit close behind them. Brooks Koepka is one shot back from the leaders at 4-under, and 2021 Masters Champion Hideki Matsuyama is just two shots back from the lead. The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in South Carolina has played incredibly difficult for the pros, as the cut line was set at five over. Many of the world’s top golfers missed this weekend’s cut, including Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele and Justin Thomas.

As the weekend begins, we must determine which of the leaders are capable of winning the 2021 PGA Championship, and which will fade on moving day and on Sunday.

Phil Mickelson (-5)

Phil Mickelson is a former PGA Championship winner (2005) and is in the running once again this year to win the tournament. Mickelson played excellent on Friday, shooting a 3-under par 69 and sits atop the leaderboard at 5-under overall. However, Mickelson has been unable to pair his solid Friday performances with equally strong weekend performances this year. Additionally, at 50-years-old, it will be very tough for Mickelson to maintain this momentum heading into the weekend. He has lost greater leads in the past, and Mickelson will likely be unable to manage his way around Kiawah Island for another 36 holes.

We have seen this movie before, and prior screenings have taught us not to trust Mickelson on weekends of a major tournament.

Verdict: Pretender

Brooks Koepka (-4)

Arguably the greatest Major player on Tour currently, Brooks Koepka is in a prime position to win his third PGA Championship in just four years. After the first two days, Koepka leads the field in strokes gained tee-to-tee and is carrying that confidence off the tee box as well. Sitting just one shot back of the leaders, Koepka is likely to make a weekend push for the trophy. No one in the field has more Major weekend experience than Koepka does, making it very difficult to pick against the 4-time Major Champion. He is the betting favorite for a reason.

Verdict: Contender

Louis Oosthuizen (-5)

Oosthuizen does not have the resume that Mickelson or Koepka have, but consistently contends for the trophy in Major tournaments. The 38-year-old is tied with Mickelson atop the leaderboard at 5-under following a 4-under Friday. Oosthuizen is among the top players this week in both strokes gained tee-to-green and in putting and has the experience to increase his lead come the weekend. Oosthuizen has finished runner-up in every Major tournament and will look to win his first major at the 2021 PGA Championship. Every aspect of his game has been solid the first two days, and Oosthuizen shows no signs of slowing down.

Verdict: Contender

Branden Grace (-3)

One of the top surprises on the PGA Tour in 2021 has been the play of 33-year-old Branden Grace. Grace sits at 61 in the FedEx Cup rank and has moved into the top 100 in the World Rankings following his victory at the Puerto Rico Open in February. However, Grace has not typically played well at Majors, especially at as tough a course as the Ocean Course. Grace has struggled on his approach shots this week and is not among the top of the field in any major statistical category. With a make-or-break round ahead of him on Saturday, it is hard to expect Grace to overcome the pressures of a Major tournament and keep pace with the likes of Koepka, Oosthuizen, and Mickelson.

Verdict: Pretender

Hideki Matsuyama (-3)

Matsuyama has stayed right where he left off following his Masters victory in April. The 29-year-old ranks third in strokes gained tee-to-green this week and has not made many mistakes on the greens. However, he has been known to be a very streaky player, especially during Majors. One poor tee shot or approach could see Matsuyama’s name fall down the board despite a solid start to 2021. The pressure of winning two Majors in one year may be all too much to handle for Matsuyama. His 4-under round on Friday seems to me like a fluke, based on his usual weekend struggles in Majors.

This may come as a surprise, but I do not envision Matsuyama contending to win back-to-back Majors this weekend.

Verdict: Pretender

Paul Casey (-2)

Finishing Friday at 2-under, Paul Casey has again positioned himself to compete for a Major title. Despite his lack of success with Majors in the past, Casey is very well up to the task at the PGA Championship this weekend. He has posted two consecutive rounds of 1-under and is coming off a tie for second place in last year’s PGA Championship. Casey has performed well off the tee this week and has not given away many strokes on the green. He is one of the few players to post back-to-back under par rounds this week, and should carry that momentum into the weekend. Do not fade Englishmen Paul Casey this weekend. At 20-1, Casey is an intriguing option heading into the weekend.

Verdict: Contender

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