Monday, August 18, 2003

A brutal test: That's what Tiger called the 85th PGA Championship at Oak Hill. But he also had praise for the course and the setup, despite finishing tied for 39th, his worst finish as a professional in a major.
"This is a very fair test. It's right there in front of you," Woods said. "It's just very difficult.
Ths is an important statement for a tournament that will receive some criticism for a few reasons. The most heard complaints will be that the course conditions were too difficult for a PGA, too U.S. Open like, resulting in scores that were too high and didn't showcase the players enough, and that there were no stars in the hunt at the finish. Well, sucks to all of the critics, it was everything a golf fan could want.

The course: I know I criticized the PGA for trying to "out Open" the Open by growing the rough to an outrageous heigth, but turns it there was a reason. Heavy rains for two weeks in Rochester prevented cutting the rough to normal PGA length. If they'd tried to cut it, the course would have been even harder, with long grass laying down and hiding golf balls even more. I think they did the best they could with difficult circumstances. The scores were high, relative to par, but it was a par 70 course (instead of the more common par 72), depriving players of two par fives every day on which to rack up birdies. The Open does this frequently with no complaints and it's the way Oak Hill sets up best for elite players. All in all, the course was gourgeous, lush and green, and the greens were immaculate. It was a difficult course, but that's what identifies the best player of the week. And, with few exceptions, the majors do that pretty well.

As for the lack of stars at the end, that only hurts the tv ratings, which while important to the growth of the game, should not be the motivating factor or the standard by which players or tournaments are judged. Tiger, Ernie, Phil, and Segio weren't there at the end, or at all, but we got to see a couple of rising stars show off thier impressive skill. Champion Shaun Micheel won the tournament in style. When Ben Curtis had his Cinderella story at the British Open it was more lost by Thomas Bjorn than won by Curtis. Curtis deserves much praise, but he got a lot of help when Bjorn blew his lead. Micheel won after sleeping on the lead (a nerve wracking experience for even the most hard boiled pro) and made clutch shots down the stretch. It was fun to watch, despite his lack of a pedigree. And Chad Campbell, who finished second, is a highly respected rookie.

Campbell, a 13-time winner on the Hooters Tour, was voted by his peers in a Sports Illustrated poll a few weeks ago as the next star-in-the-making. He almost made them look good in a hurry.
We'll see a lot more of this guy in the future, and I suspect he'll get a major before long.

Finally, the tournament had a dramatic ending that will go down in history as one of the greats. With a one stroke lead and Campbell sitting close for a birdie, Micheel laced a 7-iron closer than a Florida recount to seal the victory. Within minutes people were comparing it to some of the greatest shots in golf history, including Waton's chip-in on the 71st hole at the '82 Open at Pebble Beach and Corey Pavin's remarkable shot on the last hole of the '95 Open at Shinnecock Hills. If you know nothing about golf, know only that this is high praise indeed.

And so the golf season winds down. There's little of import, except to real junkies, to come in the next few months. And what have we seen in the past year? The "star" players dominated the tour this year, with Tiger, Davis Love, Ernie Els, Mike Weir, Jim Furyk,and Kenny Perry (all right he's not quite star material) all carding mulitiple victories. But the majors were a different story, with each title going to a first time major winner and the last two taken by first time tour winners. That's more than unusual. Never before have two consecutive majors been won by first timers. Tiger will be back in full force next year (he'll be hungrier for another major than he's been in a while), but we've seen how deep the talent pool is and it will be tough to be surprised by anything. The PGA Championship provided a fitting end to a season that nobody envisioned and provided much fodder for next year's debates and predictions. And it was a hell of a lot of fun.

PS Thanks for indulging my amateur golf commentary during major weeks. I see it as a relief from my amateur political commentary every other week.

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