CHASKA, Minn. (AP) For a state that spends six months of the year frozen solid, Minnesota has given the 2009 PGA Championship the warmest of welcomes.
Huge galleries. Immaculately prepared Hazeltine National. Warm, sunny weather. And that's just for the practice rounds. Wait until play begins on Thursday.
Golf in Minnesota? Ya sure, you betcha!
"To have that many people here at a practice round is phenomenal," Tiger Woods said after fans stood five-deep around the tees and greens and lined the fairways to catch a glimpse of the world's most famous athlete. "Even at Bethpage this year, we never saw this many people. We thought that would have been the most that we would have all year.
"This place has been phenomenal."
Hazeltine sets up as the longest course in major championship history. So there is plenty of room for Minnesota's legion of golf fanatics to line the ropes and see their favorite players this week.
It's the fifth PGA Championship held in Minnesota, and the first since Rich Beem held off the charging Woods in a memorable finish in 2002. Minnesota also hosted the U.S. Women's Open last year at Interlachen, another event that was hailed as a triumph by golfers, fans and officials.
Minnesota only has one annual professional golf tournament - the 3M Championship senior event in Blaine. So the people here embrace any chance they get to show the rest of the country that golf belongs in the land of wind chills and ice fishing.
"I think because our golf season is so short, the people in Minnesota love the game of golf and appreciate it more because they don't have as long to play per year," said Doug Dittbenner, a 41-year-old who made the 90-minute drive from North Mankato to take in the practice round on Wednesday. "We have winters and falls and limited time. So when the best in the world come to Minnesota, the Minnesota congregation of golfers come together. They have in the past and they did it again here."
Congregation is an appropriate word. For a population that suffers from "Cabin Fever" from October through April and views January highs in the single digits as cause for celebration, spending a day under clear blue skies with green grass under their feet is tantamount to a secondary religion in these parts.
The PGA does not take attendance figures for practice rounds, but a single glance into the jam-packed walkways and screaming fans who tried to get autographs from Phil Mickelson was enough to illustrate Minnesota's affection for this game.
"Certainly looking out at the attendance just these first three days, you would not know that there is an economic downturn here in the Twin Cities," PGA CEO Joe Steranka said. "And it speaks to the fact that Minnesota has one of the highest per capita golf participation rates in the entire nation."
A 2006 survey by the National Golf Foundation said there were nearly 750,000 golfers in Minnesota. Many of them will be at Hazeltine all week, giving the pros here a hearty dose of that famed "Minnesota Nice." The galleries may be large, but players have found the fans to be respectful, polite and gracious.
"I think from what I saw today, the fans have been supportive of all the players as they've come through," Mickelson said. "And I think this is a great site to hold this championship on because of the way the people are."
Well, most of the people.
There was an "Animal House" of sorts just off the tee box at No. 6 on Wednesday. A group of about 10 young adults sat on a deck watching the action and cheering heartily when each golfer reached the tee.
After Mike Miles let a drive fly, the peanut gallery went crazy, prompting Miles to look over and ask, "What are you doing?"
One of the young men replied, at about 10 a.m., "Just shotgunning a beer for you!"
Miles simply laughed and headed up the fairway, giving a faux chug of his water bottle to play to the crowd.
"It's been incredible, the amount of people out here," Steve Stricker said. "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. I was out here on Monday and played all 18. And the amount of people out here at that time was incredible."