Ranking the Contenders in a PGA Championship Worthy of Another Kentucky Classic

Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele co-lead with a stable of capable players behind them, and Gary Van Sickle handicaps the Sunday horse race in store at Valhalla.
Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele co-lead heading to Sunday at the PGA Championship.
Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele co-lead heading to Sunday at the PGA Championship. / USA TODAY Network

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The man in red knew what he was doing. 

Steve Buttleman is Churchill Downs’s official bugler and normally plays “Call to the Post” as part of the annual pomp and ceremony before the Kentucky Derby, the famous horse race held just up the road earlier this month.

Saturday, Buttleman delivered the rousing tune at Valhalla Golf Club instead. His prescient performance was a big reason the PGA Championship’s third round felt more like a horse race than a golf tournament. Plus, there’s something about that red jacket with the big black lapels. (It’s a primal thing that makes me want to get a bet down.)

The other reasons?

The race to the finish was a birdie- and eagle-fest as Valhalla offered little defense—15 players are in double-figures under par through 54 holes. (Which Korn Ferry Tour tournament is this, again?)

There was dramatic jockeying for position—top-ranked Scottie Scheffler fell off his mount by playing the first four holes in 4 over par while Shane Lowry shot 62 and narrowly missed a major-championship record 61 when his birdie putt stayed left on the final hole. Lowry came from nowhere to storm into a tie for fourth place while Scheffler vanished from the leaderboard’s first page. Other names vaulting onto the leaderboard included Lee Hodges, Austin Eckroat and Taylor Moore. (Which Korn Ferry Tour tournament is this again? Or did I already ask that?)

There are 16 players within six shots of the lead. This PGA Championship is still wide open. Who’s got the horsepower to finish it off? Let’s check our Racing Form … 

The co-leaders

More Kawabell (Collin Morikawa, jockey): A putting grip adjustment revived this two-time major champion’s game this week. After a scratchy first nine, Morikawa finished strong, holing a clutch birdie at the 15th and another at 18 to get a piece of the lead. He’s been there, won that (2020 PGA, 2021 British Open). That makes him a slight favorite. Also, he exudes confidence. 

Mister X (Xander Schauffele, jockey):  What do you do for an encore after an opening 62? Scrape out a pair of 68s and let the rest of the field back into the tournament, which is how you manage to not win a major. Birdies at 10 and 14 moved him strongly in front, then he made an ugly double bogey from thick grass behind the 15th green and the field closed ranks on him. A clutch birdie-birdie rally on the closing holes got him into Sunday’s final pairing. He’s got an Olympic gold medal but to get his breakthrough major, Schauffele has to outrun six of the world’s best. That 62 seems like a long time ago already.

The chasers

Celtic Pride (Shane Lowry, jockey): The hefty Irishman enjoyed the putting round of his life Saturday with nine birdies and 130 feet worth of putts holed. It’s always supposed to be difficult to back up a low round with another good one but Lowry became an all-time Irish hero when he won the Open Championship in Northern Ireland. A PGA Championship pales compared to that pressure, which was knowing he’d never pay for a drink again in his native country if he won. Trails by 2.

Pass the Pepper (Sahith Theegala, jockey): A college superstar at Pepperdine, Theegala has one win on the PGA Tour but shown signs of so much more. He looked recovered from a recent rib injury Saturday, especially when he holed a circus flop shot for birdie from the back of the 15th green. He’s a star in the making. Trails by 1.

Gargantuan (Bryson DeChambeau, jockey): A soft Valhalla was supposed to favor big hitters and no one in golf hits bombs like DeChambeau. He was merely lurking until a dramatic eagle chip-in at the 18th hole lifted him to within a shot of the lead. It’s easy to forget he won a U.S. Open fairly easily five years ago on a much tougher test, Winged Foot. DeChambeau has big game. Trails by 2.

Norway Yes Way (Viktor Hovland, jockey): Can a Norwegian guy make a Mongolian Reversal? After struggling this year, Hovland went back to his old swing coach and made a startling return to form this week, following his first-round 68 with back-to-back 66s. Just that quickly, he resembled last year’s FedEx Cup champ again. He birdied three of the last four holes to sneak into a tie for fourth. If the Best Player Who Hasn’t Won Major Yet isn’t Schauffele, it’s Hovland. And he’s got fewer bad memories than Schauffele. Trails by 2.

Top contenders

Just In Just Out (Justin Rose, jockey): It’s been 10 years since Rory McIlroy won a major but it’s been longer for Rose, whose only major title was the 2013 U.S. Open. He got sucked into a birdie vortex Saturday with playing partner Lowry and, indeed, looked 10 years younger as he racked up eight birdies. He’s a Ryder Cup warhorse and at 43, he’s not too old to pull this off. Phil Mickelson won a PGA at 50 … if anyone still remembers him. Trails by 3.

Left Turn On Green (Robert MacIntyre, jockey): Americans discovered this lefthanded Scot last year during his star turn at the Ryder Cup. He’s won twice on the DP World Tour and he, too, hits it long. He was eighth in driving distance in Round 3. This is his biggest exam—well, next to that Ryder Cup. Trails by 3.

The dark horse

Burma Shaver (Dean Burmester, jockey): Your obvious question: Who is Dean Burmester? He’s a 34-year-old South African who quietly won four times in Europe and once recently in LIV Golf. He’s been playing well on the LIV circuit, in fact, and he’s a big hitter, averaging 322.1 yards per drive in the third round, third-longest in the field. Can he really outrun the thoroughbreds on the leaderboard? This isn’t LIV. Trails by 4.

The long shots

Bluegrass Boy (Justin Thomas, jockey): Kentucky native Thomas has the crowd urging him on. He made the shot of the day, a thrilling flop at the 14th green that hit the pin with speed and dropped and sent the gallery into a frenzy. He is the crowd favorite and he’s riding the emotion. Good news: It’s doable. Bad news: He needs at least a 63. Trails by 5.

Hooray for Holywood (Rory McIlroy, jockey): That 2014 PGA Championship win 10 years ago looks as if it will remain McIlroy’s most recent major title a while longer. A second-round 71 was a dagger but he was poised to recover with five birdies in an eight-hole stretch. Then he bogeyed 14 and 16 and dug a deep hole. Another opportunity lost, probably, unless McIlroy does something truly Rory-esque … like shoot 60 or 61. Trails by 7.


Arrested Development (Scottie Scheffler, jockey): A run at a Daily Double and a calendar-year Grand Slam evaporated by the fourth hole as Scheffler couldn’t bounce back from his second-round ordeal, still shaken by the experience. Or was it that jailhouse sandwich he downed? Hard to say. Trails by 8.

Punishment (Brooks Koepka, jockey): A LIV win following a dismal Masters showing earned Koepka a spot as a pre-PGA favorite. But on a Saturday when low scores were rampant, Koepka racked up three bogeys, a double bogey and no birdies in his first 12 holes and got trampled. His trainers worked him hard after his Masters disappointment. Guess who’s going to get a second helping of whip-ass? Fun times. Trails by 11.

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Gary Van Sickle


Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980, following the tours to 125 men’s major championships, 14 Ryder Cups and one sweet roundtrip flight on the late Concorde. He is likely the only active golf writer who covered Tiger Woods during his first pro victory, in Las Vegas in 1996, and his 81st, in Augusta. Van Sickle’s work appeared, in order, in The Milwaukee Journal, Golf World magazine, Sports Illustrated (20 years) and Golf.com. He is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America. His knees are shot, but he used to be a half-decent player. He competed in two national championships (U.S. Senior Amateur, most recently in 2014); made it to U.S. Open sectional qualifying once and narrowly missed the Open by a scant 17 shots (mostly due to poor officiating); won 10 club championships; and made seven holes-in-one (though none lately). Van Sickle’s golf equipment stories usually are based on personal field-testing, not press-release rewrites. His nickname is Van Cynical. Yeah, he earned it.