A new look at the last major
by Associated Press
The PGA Championship is known as "Glory's Last Shot," but this major will be a first.
No one has ever played a competitive round at Whistling Straits, the course built along the shores of Lake Michigan. The links-styled course is the longest in major championship history at 7,514 yards, with three par 4s at least 500 yards and the shortest par 5 measuring 569 yards.
There are more than 1,000 bunkers, so much sand that it's hard to tell when one bunker ends and the other starts.
By the sound of some early reviews of Whistling Straits, players might be whistling past the graveyard.
Defending champion Shaun Micheel shot 77 with no birdies the first time he played the Pete Dye design on a windy afternoon in June, then said the cut could be 10 to 12 over par. He later amended his prediction.
"If the wind comes up at all, and they play the golf course the way it did when I played, it really felt like double digits over par could win the golf tournament," Micheel said.
Loren Roberts called it the hardest course he has ever played. Former PGA champion Rich Beem heard the fairways were long and tight, but didn't believe the scouting report.
"I just figured there's just no way," he said. "But when we played it, it was awful."
Indeed, curiosity is at an all-time high for the final major of the year - and so is the hysteria.
"I've heard so many different opinions," Tiger Woods said before going up to Wisconsin for his first look at Whistling Straits. "I've heard it's too tight in the landing areas, and I've heard other guys say it's a fair test with plenty of room. Some guys say you can roll the ball up to the greens, others say you have to carry it to get to the right spot.
"That's the thing," he said. "We don't know."
About the only thing anyone expects is another strong performance by Phil Mickelson, who transformed himself from the guy who couldn't win a major into the lefty who does everything right.
If not for missing a couple of short par putts at Shinnecock and Troon, Mickelson could be going for the Grand Slam. Instead, he has gone 1-2-3 in the majors, starting with his breakthrough win at the Masters, and now has a chance to become the first player to finish in the top 3 in all four professional majors in the same year.
Ernie Els gets one last chance to erase a season of major heartache. While he is closer than ever to replacing Woods at No. 1 in the world ranking, all that matters to the Big Easy is winning majors. And all he has this year are three close calls, including runner-up finishes to Mickelson at the Masters and Todd Hamilton in a playoff at the British Open.
"I've come this close, so obviously I'm doing something right," Els said. "Something is good in my game. It's just not quite there at the end."
At stake for the Americans is the last hope of making the Ryder Cup team. Because the points are double at a major, 34 players have a mathematical chance of getting into the top 10.
Most of the attention is on John Daly (No. 20), the only two-time major winner to have never played in the Ryder Cup, and Jay Haas (No. 14), at age 50 trying to become the oldest American to qualify for the team.
The other focus at Whistling Straits is whether Woods can end a drought that has reached nine majors since he last hoisted a trophy. Woods has twice gone entire years without winning a major (1998 and 2003), but this is the first time he has not seriously contended on the back nine on Sunday.
His only victory this year is the Match Play Championship in February. He is $2.3 million behind Mickelson on the money list. He is assured of being No. 1 in the world for the 331st week when he arrives at the PGA, which will tie the record set by Greg Norman, although Els will have another chance to surpass him.
But Woods' outlook on his season could change in four days.
"Any time you win a major, it's going to be a great year," Woods said.
Vijay Singh could only go to No. 1 if he wins and Woods misses the cut. The big Fijian already has four victories this year - twice as many as anyone else - but he is 0-for-18 in the majors since winning the 2000 Masters.
"When Tiger was winning every other one, we said, 'Look, this is unusual; you guys don't understand,"' Davis Love III said. "It's going to go back to normal sometime when we get a streak of different guys winning."
That certainly has been the case. Ten players have won the last 10 majors dating to Woods' last major victory at the '02 U.S. Open. And the PGA Championship is a good place for that trend to continue, since 13 of the last 16 winners had never won a major.
Woods can still go another three majors without winning before he matches the dry spell Jack Nicklaus endured at about the same point in his career. And while Woods has been stuck on eight majors in pursuit of Nicklaus' record 18, he still thinks he can get there.
"I'm still right on pace - actually, ahead of his pace," Woods said. "It wasn't going to happen overnight. It wasn't going to happen in my 20s. For Jack, it took him 23 years to accomplish that. So it's going to take a long time."
It seems like Woods has been part of the golf landscape forever, although this is only his eighth full year playing the majors. In some respects, he comes full circle at the PGA Championship, returning to Wisconsin for the first time since he made his professional debut at the Greater Milwaukee Open in 1996.
Whistling Straits was still two years away from opening at the time. The PGA of America is not afraid to try something new, jumping at a chance to go to Whistling Straits when the U.S. Open hesitated.
But whether it was Crooked Stick or Oak Tree, Sahalee or Valhalla, its courses have always been user-friendly. The last time a score of 280 or higher won the PGA Championship was in 1990, the longest stretch of any major.
That could be about to change.
This is the third consecutive major played on a links-style course, preceded by Shinnecock Hills at the U.S. Open and the true links, Royal Troon, at the British Open.
Whistling Straits figures to be so much different than the other two.
"There's a few more penal areas where you just cannot hit the ball," Love said after his practice round on Monday.
What could help the players is that Shinnecock Hills has become a battle cry for how not to set up a golf course. The USGA refused to water the greens, which all but died during the final round and led to 28 players in the 80s and the best score at even par.
But at more than 7,500 yards and with the potential for big wind, Whistling Straits could get silly.
Then again, no one knows.
The last major won with a score over par was the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie, which Paul Lawrie won in a playoff after finishing at 6-over 290.
Carnoustie is regarded as the toughest links in golf, a big course with tiny fairways and waist-high fescue, made even more punishing by the whipping wind off the Firth of Tay.
By the end of next week, that could all sound very familiar.