The launching pad

More than the other majors in recent years, the PGA Championship has given us first-time champions like Paul Azinger, John Daly and Rich Beem. Who are the players most ready to send their careers soaring with a breakthrough victory?

Justin Rose

With two victories in recent months, Justin Rose is a logical candidate to stand up and win his first major. (Getty Images)

By Stan Awtrey, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent

For the last 20 years, the PGA Championship has stood like Lady Liberty, welcoming all contenders and turning no one away because of the perceived lack of credentials.

Yes, the PGA Championship has rewarded greatness. During the last two decades Tiger Woods has won the tournament four times, Vijay Singh and Nick Price have won it twice, and Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III and Padraig Harrington have each had their hands wrapped around the Wanamaker Trophy. All are legitimate World Golf Hall of Famers.

But the PGA Championship has also turned out to be a launching pad for others. It’s where Paul Azinger in 1993 won his only major championship and where John Daly in 1991 won his first. It’s also been the venue at which David Toms (2001) and Rich Beem (2002) proved to be world-beaters -- Toms for denying Mickelson his first major championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club and Beem for taming Tiger at Hazeltine. Mark Brooks broke Kenny Perry’s heart in a playoff at Valhalla in 1996 and Shaun Micheel turned back Chad Campbell with his once-in-a-lifetime approach at Oak Hill in 2003.

A year ago it was Y.E. Yang who survived a showdown with Tiger, became the first Asian to win a major championship and celebrated by bench-pressing his golf bag in a wild post-round celebration.

Singh won the PGA Championship the last time it was played at Whistling Straits, but it wasn’t easy. He had to beat Chris DiMarco and Justin Leonard in extra holes. The makeup of that playoff party is an indication that the course is accessible to short hitters like Leonard and not the exclusive property of the big hitters like Singh. That also means that the site could allow a newcomer to emerge and win the final major championship of the season.

It’s already happened twice this year. Graeme McDowell won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and Louis Oosthuizen won the British Open at St. Andrews. It was the first major championship for both men and set a tone for the rest of the players, who saw that the big events aren’t restricted to the top-10 ranked players.

There’s a very good chance for the trend to continue at Whistling Straits. It’s an ideal venue for someone without a long list of credentials to come in and leave as a star. Look at Oosthuizen; three months ago few people even knew who he was and today he’s universally recognized for his beautiful swing.

Here’s a list of 10 excellent players, none of them who own a major championship. Any one of them could break through at the PGA Championship and become this year’s version of Y.E. Yang.

Justin Rose: He played at Whistling Straits in 2004 and missed the cut, which he’s done in three of the seven times he’s competed at the PGA Championship. His best finish was a tie for ninth in 2008 at Oakland Hills.

Steve Stricker: He was second at the 1998 PGA Championship, losing by two strokes to Vijay Singh. Stricker has played in the event 13 times and last year tied for 22nd at Hazeltine. He’s been one of the most consistent players on Tour this year.

Matt Kuchar: The hottest player on the PGA Tour this year without a victory (his last win was the 2009 Turning Stone Resort Championship). He has posted eight top-10s in 20 starts but will be trying to make the cut at the PGA Championship for the first time in three tries.

Sean O'Hair: Until this year, his major record wasn't impressive but he tied for 12th at Pebble Beach and finished seventh at the British Open last month. Not to mention, he has momentum after taking a share of the lead into the final round of the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational and finishing fifth.

Luke Donald: He’s never missed the cut in six appearances at the PGA Championship. His best finish was a tie for third at Medinah in 2003. He tied for 24th the last time the event was held at Whistling Straits.

Dustin Johnson: He let the U.S. Open slip from his grip two months ago and bounced back to tie for 14th at St. Andrews. Last year was his first appearance at the PGA Championship and he tied for 10th.

Rory McIlroy: The young Northern Irishman tied for third a year ago in his PGA Championship debut. This year, his first on the PGA Tour, he’s had mixed results in the big events. He missed the cut at the Masters, the U.S. Open and THE PLAYERS Championship, but tied for third at the Open Championship, despite a second-round 80.

Ian Poulter: His flashy clothes play well at the PGA Championship, where Poulter has made the cut in his last seven appearances. His best showing was a tie for ninth in 2006 and a year ago he tied for 19th at Hazeltine. Since a solid tie for 10th at the Masters, Poulter has been an enigma; he missed the cut at THE PLAYERS, tied for 47th at Pebble Beach and tied for 60th at St. Andrews.

K.J. Choi: He’s been a factor in two PGA Championships, where he has made the cut in seven of nine appearances. Choi tied for sixth in 2004 at Whistling Straits and tied for seventh in 2006.

Paul Casey: His tie for third at the British Open was Casey's seventh top-10 in his last 14 major starts. Casey isn't among the automatic qualifiers for the European Ryder Cup team, either, but a win would be mighty impressive for Captain Colin Montgomerie.

Maybe these guys can practice their celebration ritual, too. It’s going to take something special to top the unbridled joy exhibited by Yang last year. We’ll have to see what they can come up with.