After his thrilling victory at the PGA Championship, Harrington stands atop an altered golf landscape

After his thrilling victory at the PGA Championship, Harrington stands atop an altered golf landscape

If you equate a hard golf course with a good golf course, then you must have thought Oakland Hills was great on Thursday and Friday.

As I spoke with my CBS colleagues early in the week, I said it felt like a U.S. Open broke out on my way to the PGA Championship. The qualities that we typically associate with U.S. Opens — ankle-deep rough, lightning-fast greens and narrow fairways — made Oakland Hills play like the monster Ben Hogan described in 1951.

It seems to me that when Rees Jones redesigns courses in preparation for major championships, he doesn’t give players enough options. If they missed any of the narrow fairways last week, they were in jail. The design of the golf course too often dictated which shot players had to attempt from the tees and in the fairway. Positions that players would previously have chosen to attack certain hole locations were now occupied by bunkers or long rough.

That really stifled creativity, and I don’t think it’s what Donald Ross had in mind when he originally designed the course. The same problem occurred when the U.S. Open was played at Pinehurst in 2005.

While it’s a shame that Saturday’s rain ruined a great day for many fans, the added moisture had a positive effect on the course. It was still a great challenge, but the greens were more receptive to approach shots, so players had a much better chance to score.

Fans want the excitement of seeing the best players in the world demonstrate their skills, including recovery shots. It’s a shame when a course does not allow the players to show their best stuff. This season the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open were all battles of attrition. The grind-it-out style of golf took a lot of energy out of those events. Down the stretch at the PGA Championship, players were rewarded for hitting good shots, and it was fantastic.

Padraig Harrington’s performance was nothing short of magnificent. When Tiger Woods announced after the U.S. Open that he would miss the rest of the 2008 season, I wonder how many people thought Harrington would be the guy to step up and become the game’s dominant player?

Consider this: Harrington has now won three of the last six major championships, a Tiger-esque accomplishment. With Woods on the sideline, Padraig has beaten the best players in the world on the biggest stages — twice! If Colin Montgomerie does not make Nick Faldo’s European Ryder Cup team, Harrington appears ready to take over as the go-to guy.

Sergio Garcia is another player who will be tough for the United States team to handle at Valhalla. I saw a different Sergio at Oakland Hills on Sunday. His putter was a part of him, not something he battled. Off the tee and from the fairway with his irons, Sergio has always been rock solid. Now his putting is starting to catch up with the rest of his game. He’s showing more maturity on the golf course, and I would not be surprised to see him in the hunt once again on Sunday at the 2009 Masters.

Sure, nearly everyone who loves golf is eager to see Tiger Woods return to action in 2009. But the landscape will have changed. Harrington is now one of the game’s truly elite players. Garcia is better and more confident. Phil Mickelson has every reason to be motivated, and Anthony Kim appears to be on the verge of greatness.

We’re a long way away from next season, but I think it’s already shaping up to be a great one. Eight months until the Masters, and I can’t wait!