Asked by anybody who the most likely winner of this week’s PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club might be, and you’ll find yourself first rattling off the familiar names—Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy—and onto the rest of the list of tournament favorites. However, if you go there, are you really looking in the right spot? Fact is, seven of the past nine PGA Championships have been won by first-time major winners. Sure a few were big names (Jason Day, Thomas). But perhaps we should expect a bit of the unexpected when it comes to a winner this week.
Needless to say there are several marquee players looking for their major breakthrough. You know guys like Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood are likely contenders in search of a career-defining title. But you can dive even deeper into the pool of potential surprise first-time winners and come up with some quality candidates. Here are the nine players less obvious but most poised to make the PGA Championship their first major.
Patrick Cantlay: About five years ago, some might’ve expected Cantlay to already have his maiden major title, given his 51 consecutive weeks atop the world amateur rankings. He seemed poised to be golf’s next big thing before injury and tragedy happened. Given his hardships, it’s pretty remarkable Cantlay is now playing at an elite level. The 26-year-old earned his first victory earlier this season at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, and he has been really good since. Four of the past five events, Cantlay has results in the top 20, with two of those finishes being top-6s. One of those was last week at the WGC-Bridgestone, where Cantlay finished second in proximity to the hole for the week. That should be a predictive stat this week, with Bellerive’s incredibly large greens—that average about 11,000 square feet in size, for a total of four acres of green surfaces—and ridges and undulations. Proximity will yield birdies and pars. With this young stud’s ball-striking pedigree, don’t be surprised to see him in contention come Sunday.
Tony Finau: You might as well refer to the big-hitting Utah native as the next Brooks Koepka. Finau has compiled an impressive resume of consistency in majors, similar to what Koepka’s looked like before his breakthrough at Erin Hills. Take a look at Finau’s major form: T-9; fifth place; T-10; T-44; T-27; MC; T-18; T-10; T-14. It seems like a matter of time before he breaks through on his own. On a layout that will reward distance, Finau’s name pops off as a possible champion.
Xander Schauffele: Overshadowed by other compelling storylines at Carnoustie was Schauffele nearly capturing the claret jug. Without his A game, Schauffele remained around the lead for the entirety of Sunday, scrapping it around more impressively than playing competitor Jordan Spieth. The T-2 at Carnoustie and a T-6 at Shinnecock, plus a T-2 at this year’s Players Championship, add up to some great big-time tournament form for the 24-year-old coming into Bellerive.
Joaquin Niemann: Maybe we haven’t given the 19-year-old enough credit for his success in 2018. The breakout star from Chile just turned pro in May and earned temporary special status on the PGA Tour. In his small sample size, he has been one of the best on tour in the biggest predictive stat categories. Niemann’s strokes-gained/approach the green stat (1.070) would rank him first on the PGA Tour if he had enough rounds to qualify (Keegan Bradley leads at 1.017). And Niemann would be fourth in strokes gained/tee-to-green; ninth in strokes gained/overall; and second in both proximity to the hole and greens in regulation. All of those facts might be enough to look past his lack of major experience. Pay serious attention to the 19-year-old breakout star from Chile.
Kevin Chappell: Like Schauffele, Chappell battled impressively at Carnoustie to record a T-6, his second top-10 in a major since 2017 (the other a T-7 at the 2017 Masters). In terms of ball-strikers, Chappell ranks in the elite level in some important stats: 23rd in strokes gained/tee to green and 27th in strokes gained/approach. We’ve seen Chappell pop at the PGA Championship before—he led at Valhalla in 2014 after the first round with an opening 65. What course has some said reminds them of Bellerive? That’d be Valhalla. Maybe Chappell puts it all together this week and backs up his Carnoustie finish.
Thorbjorn Olesen: Few players have been hotter this summer than the 29-year-old from Denmark. Olesen won the Italian Open for his fifth European Tour title and has finished in the top 12 of five of the seven events he has played since June. A final-round 64 last week at Firestone gives Olesen some additional momentum coming into St. Louis. Olesen re-emerged last year at the PGA Championship, grabbing a share of the lead after the first round at Quail Hollow. Maybe his stellar 2018 shows he can back up a hot round or two with a consistent weekend.
Rafa Cabrera Bello: Like Olesen, this talented European’s name has a tendency to flash on the leade rboard at bigger events. His stat analysis tends to match nicely with what should translate to success at Bellerive. Bello ranks ninth in strokes gained/approaches, 12th in greens in regulation and 23rd in proximity to the hole this season on the PGA Tour. A major spotlight shouldn’t be too bright for the Spaniard, given his Ryder Cup experience. He has an uninspiring major record this season, but given the Ryder Cup is just more than a month away, and a fellow European in Francesco Molinari just broke through, maybe Cabrera Bello will be inspired at Bellerive.
Kyle Stanley: The track record in majors for this talented 30-year-old is really unimpressive. You should be willing to look past that. Stanley has had a great year. And he’s on a short list of elite ball-strikers who should excel at Bellerive. He finished T-2 at Firestone last week, another Robert Trent Jones Sr. design, which should have comparable success.
Aaron Wise: Talking about pure talent, Wise has it. We saw the 23-year-old rookie run away with a PGA Tour event this year at the AT&T Byron Nelson, so you would figure his name will pop up more often in bigger spots. Wise did finish T-6 last week at the WGC-Bridgestone, which was his first good result in a long time. Maybe Wise figured something out before he plays in just his third major championship.