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Phil Mickelson has a lot for which to play over the next seven weeks. (Greenwood/WireImage)

A major amount on the line

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Not much going on as we head to Oakland Hills ... other than a major, positioning for the Playoffs, Ryder Cup berths and a Player of the Year award.

By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich.
-- For the PGA TOUR pros, the PGA Championship is their last chance to win a Major title this season. But it's hardly the last big event.

Indeed, this week's tournament at Oakland Hills actually is the beginning of an intense seven-week stretch that will determine who wins the FedExCup and its $10 million bonus, as well as the Ryder Cup and most of the PGA TOUR's postseason awards.

More PGA Championship:
Pairings, tee times
The Wanamaker Trophy
Oakland Hills changes
Hole-by-hole
Maginnes: Which one?

What so often seemed like a foregone conclusion with Tiger Woods on the prowl suddenly offers a world of possibilities now that the game's No. 1 player is on the sidelines rehabilitating a surgically reconstructed left knee.

The bionic man won't win the FedExCup, as Woods did a year ago in its debut. He may not win the money title, either, with Kenny Perry and Phil Mickelson a winner's paycheck away from applying pressure.

To be sure, Woods' four wins, including that gusty performance on essentially one leg at the U.S. Open, could well be enough to earn PGA TOUR Player of the Year honors as he's done nine of the last 11 years. But Woods won't win either of the two scoring titles because he hasn't played enough rounds.

What happens in the next seven weeks could very well cement a career year or elevate a player to a new level. The possibilities are intriguing and the competition is sure to be intense.

"We have a great finish for the season," said Mickelson, who had shut things down after the PGA Championship in years past. "I'm excited about it. I've got a new-found energy for the end of the season. I've been practicing hard, and I'm excited. I love all of these tournaments."

On the eve of the season's final major, PGATOUR.COM takes a look at what's at stake:


PGA CHAMPIONSHIP

Take away Woods, Mickelson and Sunday's World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational winner Vijay Singh, who have combined to win the last four PGAs, and the season's last major has been extremely kind to first-time winners. Maybe it's the fact that disaster doesn't lurk at every hole to put the premium on experience. Or perhaps it's the position on the schedule in mid-August.

"If (nerves are) going to be frayed, they're already frayed, and they've already been sewn back together, so to speak," Stewart Cink explained. "Everybody has been through the battles, and everybody is fighting a battle, whether it's to get their card or make the Ryder Cup team or finish high on the FedExCup, something is being fought for. And the major at the end of the year gives you a good chance to move up."

Who are this year's most likely candidates to break through and win the Wanamaker Trophy? Let's break it down into two groups:

Veterans seeking to add a major to their resume. Kenny Perry, who built and owns a public course in his native Franklin, Ky., would be the ultimate champion of a tournament run by the organization that represents the 28,000 club pros across the country. He's a streaky player who won three times in a five-week span to secure his spot on the Ryder Cup team. The attention has been draining, though, and Perry, who turns 48 on Sunday, only broke par once at Firestone Country Club last week.

A better bet might be Lee Westwood, the 35-year-old Englishman who finished one shot out of the U.S. Open playoff and runner-up at the Bridgestone Invitational. A 25-time winner on the European Tour, he's got history at Oakland Hills, too -- going 4-0-1 at the Ryder Cup there in 2004.

Of course, Westwood's Ryder Cup teammate, Colin Montgomerie, is the perennial name in this category. Monty has nine top 10s in majors, including five runner-up finishes, and dearly wants to make the European Ryder Cup squad for the ninth straight time. But he has struggled in his two major appearances this year, failing to make the cut at the U.S. Open and tying for 58th in the Open Championship.

Young guns hoping to take the next step. Hard to decide whether to put Sergio Garcia with the veterans or the young guns -- after all, the 28-year-old has been on TOUR nine years. He took a major step in winning THE PLAYERS Championship this year, though, and with 10 top 10s in golf's four crown jewels, Garcia certainly knows what it takes. He just needs to get the job done once and there's no telling what might happen once the gates open. Like Westwood, Garcia also went unbeaten in five matches at the Ryder Cup in '04, too.

The young Spaniard's good friend, Adam Scott, also seems to be a major champion in waiting and the smooth-swinging Aussie has finished in the top 12 three times in the last five PGAs.

There are plenty of other newbies like Sean O'Hair, Justin Rose and Brandt Snedeker who appear likely candidates for future winners, but Anthony Kim's two wins this year show he might be the closest to getting it done.


PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Yes, Woods is in the driver's seat right now. But should Masters champ Trevor Immelman or two-time Open champ Padraig Harrington win a second major of the year at Oakland Hills, voters might be swayed.

Perry, with those three wins, could also figure into the picture with a win at the PGA or the FedExCup. Mickelson also bears consideration but, like Perry, he probably needs his second PGA title and the FedExCup to wrest it away from Woods.


PGA TOUR PLAYOFFS FOR THE FEDEXCUP

Even if Woods holds his No. 1 position entering the four Playoff events, the man who wins The Barclays will bypass him. The new way that players are re-seeded this year tightens up the standings and will create more volatility, too.

A win in one of the four events remains the key as it was a year ago when Steve Stricker bolted from 12th at the start of the Playoffs to first by winning The Barclays (and ending a six-year victory drought in the process). He went on to finish second overall as a total of six players had a mathematical chance to win the $10 million bonus entering the finale at THE TOUR Championship presented by Coca-Cola.

There are a host of players hoping to follow in Stricker's footsteps this year, including Stuart Appleby, who tied for second at the Bridgestone Invitational and stands 19th with two events remaining in the Regular Season.

"The way I'm playing I feel like I've got a good set of wheels behind me," Appleby said, "and I can maybe finish near the top, turn a so-so year into maybe even a potential Steve Stricker, like what he did, or even one spot higher.

"The one spot higher guy, he's out of here."


RYDER CUP: CAPTAIN'S CHOICE

The eight automatic qualifiers for the U.S. Ryder Cup team are finalized on Sunday at the end of the PGA Championship. There has been no change at the top since last week, and little movement among the players on the bubble such as Hunter Mahan, Rocco Mediate, Sean O'Hair and Zach Johnson -- all of whom U.S. Captain Paul Azinger will consider for his four picks.

Azinger engineered the change in the qualification process to ensure that he would get players peaking, so he'll be looking for players to step up this week and the next three until he makes his picks on Sept. 2. This is a big opportunity for the players on the bubble if they can avoid putting too much pressure on themselves.

Cink, who has qualified for his fourth Ryder Cup team this year, knows what it's like to try to play your way onto the team in the last event.

"I was hitting shots with too many goals in mind instead of just trying to hit it close to the hole or down the fairway or knock it in the hole," he explained. "I was trying to make the team with every shot. It sounds absurd, but in a way that's the way I was going about it."

European Captain Nick Faldo, on the other hand, has just two picks that he will make on the night of Aug. 31 after his 10 automatic qualifiers are finalized with the end of the Johnnie Walker Championship. If the team was being set now, Faldo would have five Ryder Cup rookies among his 10 qualifiers, so finding experience will be key. With mainstays like Garcia, Ian Poulter, Darren Clarke, Paul Casey and Montgomerie currently on the outside looking in, Faldo faces a potentially difficult decision.

Poulter's third-place finish at the Open Championship was just the kind of signal Faldo needed, but Poulter could make the captain's choice much easier if he plays his way onto the team. Ditto for Garcia, who ranks sixth -- just outside the five automatic qualifiers on the European Ryder Cup World Points list. Clarke played well last week at the Bridgestone Invitational to assert himself into the discussion with four events remaining before the team is set.

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