Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Major provides most excitement


Champion should not be a surprise

By Sam Weinman
Westchester, N.Y. Journal News

The temptation is to pick on the PGA Championship the same way you might pick on a younger sibling. Smallest in stature and situated in the sluggish heat of August, it is always the fourth-place finisher in a four-way race.

Will the PGA ever leapfrog the other three majors in terms of importance? Probably not. But the PGA still has something the other three majors can't touch: Over the last six years or so, no major has been more exciting. Why?

A lot would seem to have to do with its three counterparts. The Masters, for one, seems to still be adjusting to the reconfiguration of Augusta National Golf Club, a longer, more penal test than it's ever been. The U.S. Open is too oppressive, the type of tournaments where the bold players go home on Friday and the boring ones hang around until the very end. The British Open has excitement, but it often borders on fluky.

The PGA is the lone major championship that allows the great players, and even the not-so-great players, to swing for the fences. The result, from Davis Love III's winning putt underneath a rainbow to Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia at Medinah to Woods and Rich Beem last year, has been golf's version of must-see TV. Is there a consistent thread? A closer look suggests there are a few.

Courses

Most people will tell you the low point for the PGA came in 1987, when the tournament was held in the steam bath better known as Florida in August. So disastrous was that decision, the organizers finally realized the only way to increase the tournament's credibility was to host it at quality venues. Now, from Winged Foot in 1997 to Medinah in '99 to Oak Hill in Rochester this week, the same courses that have been perennial U.S. Open hosts are opening their doors to the PGA.

Time of year

Though its place on the schedule also makes it something of an afterthought, the PGA also allows players to find their footing. With 15 or so tournaments already under their belts, including three majors, players are plenty warmed up but not yet approaching burnout. Take Beem last year. Sure, he was an unlikely champion, but he was also two weeks removed from a win in The International. Similarly, David Toms had already won once in 2001 prior to his win in the PGA, and would even go on to win again. Both players were first-time major winners, but both knew how to win on the PGA Tour.

The aura

Just as players don't necessarily dream of winning the PGA, they also aren't afraid of it. If the PGA is often criticized for being too similar to a regular tour event, it also allows players to forget they're playing in a major. Bob May wasn't intimidated when he went head-to-head with Woods at Valhalla in 2000, and Beem wasn't intimidated last year.

Strength of field

The PGA has always boasted the strongest field of the four majors, this year featuring 97 of the top 100-ranked players in the world. Beem qualified for the PGA by virtue of both his place on the money list and his win in The International. Was his win a complete surprise? In many ways, yes. But the fact that he was playing well enough to be there also suggested he could contend. And that's the PGA. Almost everyone there thinks he can win.

PGA at a glance

When: Thursday-Sunday.

Site: Oak Hill CC (par 70).

Format: 72 holes, stroke play.

Field: 156 PGA pros (25 club pros).

Defending champion: Rich Beem.

Last PGA at Oak Hill: Forty-year-old Jack Nicklaus ended a two-year winless stretch with a seven-stroke romp in the 1980 PGA.

TV: Thursday-Friday, 1-7 p.m. TNT.




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Major provides most excitement

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