By Alan Shipnuck
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

For the second straight major, Paddy Harrington saved the day. Just as at Birkdale, his spectacular back nine is what will be remembered about the 90th PGA Championship. That's a good thing, because the riveting finish redeemed a tournament that for the first three days had been largely downbeat, a reflection of larger ills.

If golf has lost most of its buzz with Tiger Woods on the disabled list, the dourness of the PGA's mood mirrored Detroit's civic temperament. Oakland Hills has long been a playground for well-heeled auto executives, but with the Big Three in the tank, this PGA featured more sober corporate entertaining and thinner crowds. A tournament's hometown fishwrap is not expected to be the bearer of bad news, but on Friday morning one of the Detroit newspapers opined, "With Tiger missing in action, unknowns taking the lead, a weather delay and the mayor's jail time dominating the news, the first round was one of the most forgettable in major history."

The second round was livelier only because of the tantrums of innumerable players complaining about a setup deemed too penal, a recurring theme at recent major championships. Oakland Hills has the toughest greens this side of Augusta National, and for this championship the layout was stretched by hundreds of yards, bunkers were made deeper and more plentiful and the course was draped in long, thick, oppressive rough. As if that weren't enough, PGA czars had their minions use plastic rakes to fluff up the long grass, ensuring nasty lies. After a carnage-filled first round, tournament officials belatedly showed a little mercy and shortened the four macho par-3s by a total of 71 yards and lopped another 87 yards off the par-four sixth, turning it into a drivable 300 yards. Still, the scoring average on Friday was 74.85, and the post-round quotes were more memorable than the shotmaking.

Steve Flesch deemed the setup an "absolute root canal," while Ian Poulter harrumphed, "You are just trying not to bleed to death out there. It's like the PGA has sliced your throat on the first tee and you have to try and make it 'round to the 18th without dying."

Flesch, a thoughtful member of the PGA Tour's player advisory council, expressed more far-reaching concerns for a pricey leisure sport that during this economic downturn is seeing more courses close than open and the number of participants and rounds played continue to fall nationally. He didn't quite accuse this PGA Championship of killing golf, but he came close. "If we're worried about attracting people to come play, if they see how miserable we are out there, why would they go, 'I want to play that game!'?" Flesch told Golf.com's Cameron Morfit. "It's fun to watch guys make birdies. They smile. The PGA is committed to growing the game; is this how they want golf portrayed?

"The thing that bums me out is I don't know how many of our top 15, 20 guys got chased out of here this weekend. Do you think that's the leaderboard the PGA of America wants up there when they're fighting the Olympics? How are ratings going to be this weekend? People are going to look at Charlie Wi, myself — I'm not saying anybody doesn't deserve to be up there, but people are going to turn around and go, 'Well I've never heard of any of these guys, let's see what's going on with the Olympics.' The PGA has got to be careful. They're getting what they're asking for, is what I'm saying."

Things only got gloomier on Saturday, when a wave of thunderstorms forced the cancellation of play before the final three groups had teed off. The morbid joke in the press room was that the filler footage that CBS went to — a tape of the epic Tiger Woods-Bob May duel at the 2000 PGA Championship — would be the highest-rated golf telecast of the post-Tiger summer.

But on Sunday Harrington stepped in to provide a thrilling finish, hitting a series of clutch shots and putts that again denied Sergio Garcia his first major Championship. Alas, it was only a temporary break from the lull. Over the last four weeks Harrington has become a superstar, but his appeal ends with golf nerds. It is Woods alone who gives golf its crossover appeal. The action between the ropes on Sunday may have been fierce, but Tiger was missed more than ever at Oakland Hills.

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