Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Listen, do you smell something: Why yes, it's the last major of the year ("hooray!" say some, "what?" say most). The PGA Championship, golf's answer to the Australian Open, is here. Actually, that's an unfair comparison. The Aussie has the advantage of leading off the tennis major season, sort of easing in to the rest of the year. When we read the Monday headlines telling Sampras won, we can say, "Oh right, tennis is starting soon," and then go back to sleep. Golf has to finish the season with it's stepmajor. No amount of drama will keep the pundits from their headlines of "Whither the PGA" and complaints by superstars that too many spots are held out for club pros who can't compete. Plus the courses don't have the cache of Open venues like Oakmont, Pebble Beach, and Pinehurst. And it's bloody effin' hot, even in New York. Oh, the poor, dissed PGA.

Well, I like the PGA and always will. Perhaps I'm biased, having worked my college years at Miami Valley Golf Club in Dayton, Oh, the site of the '57 PGA, the last year it was held under match play format (the way golf was meant to be played). Who needs the snob appeal of the Masters, the Mickey Mouse trickery of the USGA, and the godawful weather of the British Isles (well, I do, but it's August dammit). Okay, they've played some thoroughly average courses in the past, like Valhalla in '96 and (why again?) 2000. But this year it returns to a great site, Oak Hill in Rochester. Oak Hill has hosted some big events before, including the '80 PGA. But I most remember it from the Ryder Cup in '95. The course held up well under, if I recall, rainy conditions and a mob of a crowd. Yes, Europe bested the Yanks that year, but that can really be blamed on Curtis "Wide Right" Strange who fanned five-irons on two of the closing holes in his Sunday match. The course was gem, and it will prove its worth again this week.

And how much more wide open could you want a major to be? Tiger's still "slumping," so he's the automatic favorite. It's been a year full of first time major winners, going back to last year's PGA champ, Rich Beem, while the rest of the seaon has been dominaed by vets like Tiger, Davis, Ernie, and Kenny Perry. Will the trend continue? Could we have another Ben Curtis moment on Sunday? How about another first time lefty, eh Phil? It's really anyone's tournament.

Long ballers will be held in check, with Oak Hill playing barely over 7,100 yards, and a lot of that length comes on the two finishing holes, par fours of 495 and 482 yards. The only way Mickelson wins is if he hits 3 iron off most of the tees (don't feel bad for Phil, though, he's got fifty large on the eventual winner in Vegas, you just know it). So it's someone who hits it straight, avoiding the nasty, U.S. Open style rough (and the PGA will never get out of the Open's shadow if they keep trying to outdo it with rough. They'll be playing in a rain forest if this continues for five more years). The talking heads are beating the drum for Perry, and if there were any truth to good guys coming out ahead, he'd win going away. But the pundit's pick is usually worn like an anchor (see my pick for a Perry charge on Sunday at St. George's). So it's probably not his year. Davis Love deserves player of the year, and a major would seal the deal, but "Trip" always seems to trip at the majors, his '97 PGA win at Winged Foot notwithstanding. I wish him luck, but I'm not sure he'll close it out.

Since my picks are, therefore, pretty meaningless, I'd like to point out a few great "stories," even if they're longshots.

Fred Couples: he doesn't have many more years left and his back has been good enough to get him one win this year already. Fan favorite and a career that deserves more than one major.

Tom Watson: the old man just keeps playing like a champ, and he's had good majors this year already. Could he destroy Nicklaus' record for oldest major champ? Everyone would love it, though he'd have to do it without his sidekick and caddie, Bruce Edwards.

Padraig Harrington: the Irishman deserves a major, but he might not be a real closer. But a Euro winner would be a good story and it would be fun to hear everyone mispronounce his name (they always leave out the "d," but he doesn't).

Anyway, if you like golf at all, pay attention to the underrated PGA Championship. I suspect much drama awaits.

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