PGA Championship Preview: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson's chances on the longest major course ever

Tiger Woods has yet to win a major championship in 2009.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The PGA Championship is marketed as "Glory's Last Shot," which is nice. But if we have to pick a pithy aphorism to sum up the 91st PGA, which starts Thursday at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., we can do better.

Some other ideas for your consideration:

The 15th major is always the toughest
Tiger Woods has been stuck at 14 since winning the U.S. Open on a broken leg last summer, which in his world would qualify as a mini-slump were it not for the whole ACL reconstruction thing.

He notched T6 finishes at the Masters and the U.S. Open at Bethpage, where he had won in 2002 and entered as the clear favorite, and missed the cut by a shot at the British Open at Turnberry. (Perhaps he'll have the place figured out by 2035, when he's Tom Watson's age.) More galling was that Woods had won his last start before each of those three majors and seemed destined to climb another rung toward Jack Nicklaus's hallowed record of 18 professional major championship titles.

One possible explanation, Woods said at Hazeltine on Tuesday, was a lack of practice early in the year. He didn't want to stretch out his newly rebuilt left knee too soon, so he didn't hit balls after rounds.

"I feel as if I made some pretty good strides since the British Open," Woods said. "I had some nice practice sessions before the Buick, and especially on Monday and Tuesday after the Buick."

Now, heading into the PGA at Hazeltine, where Woods finished second to Rich Beem in 2002, he has won his last two tune-up events — the Buick Open two weeks ago and the WGC-Bridgestone last week. Woods is 32 under par over his last eight rounds on Tour. He has won five tournaments in '09 and just earned his 70th official Tour win Sunday, thanks to an instant-classic, 178-yard 8-iron shot to kick-in range on the par-5 16th hole at Firestone South (and Padraig Harrington's snowman).

Any questions?

Hazeltine is being described as similar to Firestone South (where Woods has won a record seven times), and Woods did everything but win here in 2002, closing with four straight birdies. Twice he has salvaged a majorless season with a victory at the PGA (/golf/equipment/article/0,28136,1716700,00.html, /golf/equipment/article/0,28136,1652784,00.html), and while he says this year's been a success no matter what happens, he's as close as you can get to a lock to do it again this week.

Woods tees off on No. 10 with Harrington and Beem at 9:35 a.m. Eastern time on Thursday.

Phil's last shot
Phil Mickelson remains stuck at three majors championships, along with fellow VTs (Victims of Tiger) Ernie Els, Harrington and Vijay Singh. But while Harrington seems ascendant, the same can't be said of the other three.

Phil's T2 at the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black showed fortitude, but it was hard to know how to take it. Was the result a moral victory, given Amy's breast cancer diagnosis in May, and Mickelson's month-long layoff? Or was it another disappointment in the major tournament that's given Lefty more fits than any other? (He's finished second a record five times.)

"Oh, well," he said afterward.

Mickelson came here for an advance scouting trip a week and a half ago, so he went home for a couple of days after the Bridgestone and didn't fly to Minnesota until Tuesday night. "I think in the end everything is going to be fine," he said. "But right now things are day-to-day for us."

He played 18 holes Wednesday with instructor Butch Harmon and sounded pleased about the state of his game. He addressed the short-game flaws he saw in Akron, and said, "I feel much better about my game this week than, say, heading into the U.S. Open."

Mickelson came in a distant T58 last week in his first action in a month and a half, but he usually does well on the PGA's relatively player-friendly layouts. In addition to his victory at Baltusrol in 2005, he has two other top-10s in the last five years. At Hazeltine in '02, he tied for 34th.

Just as Tiger has seldom looked more predictable, Mickelson has seldom seemed less so, thanks largely to his off-course issues. (His mother was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after Amy.) Now more than ever, being a Mickelson-watcher is like being an Everest meteorologist or John Daly's belt. What to expect? Who knows?

PGA Chaska: The Longest Yard
At 7,674 yards, Hazeltine is the longest course in major championship history, and the first one with three par 5s measuring more than 600 yards apiece. (The third is 633, the 11th is 606 and the 15th is 642.)

The 572-yard seventh is the pushover of the group.

"I've only seen the back nine so far, and it's definitely living up to its billing," Stewart Cink said Tuesday. "It's monster long. Just long. So many long holes. Wearing out the 2, 3, 4, 5, irons out there, and the driver, of course. And it's going to be a real test out there. We'll see how they set the course up. I have a feeling they'll juggle some tees around and make it a little more interesting."

It's all fun and games until your trainer torques your head around like you're Woodsy the Owl
Harrington remembers the 2002 PGA at Hazeltine, but not fondly.

"It was a great championship," he said in June. "But what I remember most about it is I hurt my neck on the Sunday. I have a picture at home on the wall — I tend to only put quirky pictures up on the wall — where my physio looks like he's trying to pull my neck off. At the top, he's got me in like a headlock as he's trying to adjust it on the course.

"It was [an injury] that I probably wouldn't have played on if it was anything but a major," Harrington added. (He ultimately finished T17.)

And what about the Irishman's chances this week as he tries to defend the title he won at Oakland Hills last year? He's struggled in 2009, missing six cuts and finishing no better than 11th before his tie for second at Firestone last week. Does this mean he's finally figured out the swing changes he's been working on all season? Not quite, he says, but he's close.

"About six weeks ago, I kind of figured out ultimately the move I was looking for to fix the problem I had," he said Tuesday. "I haven't quite corrected it or done enough work in that period of time, but it's obviously put my mind at rest. And I'm focusing more on playing golf, and that's what you would have seen last week."

He said he was still six months from having his new move "grooved in," but he was nonetheless confident: "I'm quite capable of performing well enough without that move to win this week."

Let the good times roll!
In golf a player gets a "bad time" if he takes too long on a hole, and pace of play is a hot topic this week. European Tour rules official John Paramor remained in the news Tuesday for putting Woods and Harrington on the clock on the 16th tee of their duel at the Bridgestone on Sunday. The incident seemed to rattle Harrington, who made a shocking triple-bogey 8, and ever since Woods has blamed Paramor for influencing the outcome.

Woods said Tuesday that he had not been fined for speaking out, as was earlier reported, and remained on the offensive.

"Unfortunately I guess we had to finish by 6 o'clock," he said. "I guess that was that important." (Damn you, Andy Rooney!)

In light of all of this, it's unlikely that a rules official will take as much liberty in determining the winner of the PGA.

PGA Chaska: Land of 10,000 lakes and even more golf nuts
Asked what stood out from his W in '02, Beem told GOLF Magazine, "Showing up at 7 a.m. Monday and there were already a few thousand people on the grounds. By the time I made the turn there were 20,000 people, and by the time I finished, just before 11, there were 30 or 40,000 people. That was only my fourth major, but I'd never seen that many people that early in the morning."

Woods echoed those sentiments Tuesday.

"Even at Bethpage this year, we never saw this many people," he said. "We thought that would have been the most that we would have had all year. This place has been phenomenal; on a Monday afternoon to see all of these people out here, I couldn't believe it yesterday. And [Tuesday] it was even more."

Glory's last shot to, um, validate that other major that Glory won
As is custom, the season's three major winners will play together, teeing off at Hazeltine's first hole at 2:35 p.m. Thursday.

Masters champion Angel Cabrera is coming off a T4 at the Bridgestone last weekend, and while he was a lackluster T48 at the 2002 PGA, El Pato is a different player today.

Stewart Cink tied for sixth last week at the Bridgestone, his first start since winning the British Open, and he tied for 10th at the 2002 PGA.

Lucas glover, the soft-spoken U.S. Open champion, tied for 19th at the Bridgestone. He is arguably the best driver of the ball this side of Sergio Garcia, so he may have an advantage at stretched-out Hazeltine.

The PGA: Everyone is doing it! Except for Robert Karlsson. Poor guy
The PGA has received commitments from 100 of the world's top 101 players, the strongest field for any event this year. Sweden's Robert Karlsson, No. 17 in the world, has been sidelined with an eye injury since May and will not compete.

Don't count out the little guy
When Beem and then Shaun Micheel (2003) won back-to-back titles, the PGA was known as the curveball major, the one that continued to surprise. Don't be shocked if we get another surprising winner this year.

Justin Leonard finished T4 despite a final-round 77 at the 2002 PGA, and Mark Calcavecchia, who made noise at Turnberry last month, finished seventh at Hazeltine in '02 despite a 74-74 weekend. Both could be in the mix on Sunday.



 

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