Despite distractions, focus at PGA Championship is on Woods and McIlroy

December 6, 2011

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Sideshows abound at the 93rd PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, from the heat to the plush, carpet-like fairways to the killer final four holes, where simply maintaining one's position will be enough to thrive.

Caddie Steve Williams has apologized for letting his emotions get the better of him in Akron, Ohio, last Sunday, when he forgot on national TV to mention the inspired play of his new boss, WGC-Bridgestone winner Adam Scott. And then there's the talk of a so-called "Chubby Slam," what with clients of ISM manager Chubby Chandler having won the year's first three majors.

But what will define this PGA is what defines every major, namely whether it will become a memorable step in one player's journey to world domination or a forgettable victory by a less-than-legendary golfer. That means this PGA Championship is all about Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods until further notice.

"I've always been one that enjoyed watching dynasties or rivalries," Woods said after playing the back nine Wednesday. "I grew up in SoCal with the Lakers playing the Celtics. There weren't enough NBA Finals — one of those teams won the NBA Finals 10 straight years. That's what I grew up watching. I enjoyed that."

Woods is trying to show that he's still capable of being a one-man dynasty, the same guy who held the game by the throat from 1997 to 2009. He has been far from his best lately, but at least he could walk without pain while finishing tied for 37th at the Bridgestone. That's more than he's been able to say since April, when he tied for fourth at the Masters.

"I have way more energy because I'm not trying to block out pain and trying to ignore that," Woods said. "I can just go out there and just play golf."

His game is still erratic. Woods is still working with Sean Foley, fighting inconsistency off the tee and running hot and cold on the greens. He starts on the 10th tee at 8:35 a.m. Thursday, with Padraig Harrington and Davis Love III. (Live blog | Live video)

"Last week was good to get out there," Woods said. "I didn't have my feel for my distances the first few days. I was hitting it a touch farther, which was a good thing, but didn't have the touch to be hitting the ball pin-high. But the last couple of days I was hitting my ball right on the number every time, which was good. Every ball was pin-high."

McIlroy hopes to prove that his eight-shot victory at the U.S. Open in June was not a fluke, and that he has the stuff to dominate the way Woods once did. That looked like a foregone conclusion when Rory cleaned up at Congressional, but not so much when he flopped in the foul weather of the British Open three weeks later, never contending on the way to a disappointing tie for 25th place.

"I don't think it's quite a new era yet," McIlroy said, "until other guys start to win majors regularly like [Woods] did."

Mclroy, 22, has sent the strongest signals yet that golf is moving into a new era. How quickly that happens will depend in large part on how much he continues to embrace America, where the predominant style of play — target-golf in mostly benign weather — best fits his game, and where three of the four majors are played. He's encouraged by what he's seen so far in Atlanta.

"I love how the PGA of America set the golf course up at this event," said McIlroy, who will join this year's other major winners, Charl Schwartzel and Darren Clarke, on the first tee at 1:45 Eastern on Thursday. "I think it really suits my game, puts a premium on ball-striking."

When the Northern Irishman played a season on the PGA Tour in 2010, he said he felt homesick, but he's since broken up with his grade-school sweetheart. He was lauded for the grace with which he handled his painful defeat at the Masters. With his romp at Congressional, where fans embraced him like an honorary Yank, McIlroy discovered that he likes playing here more than he thought. He will rejoin the PGA Tour in 2012 and was reportedly looking to buy property in Florida. He is coming off a tie for sixth at the Bridgestone, where he shot two 68s and two 67s.

"I feel very comfortable in this country and playing on the types of golf courses over here," McIlroy said. "I feel as if I've got a great relationship with the fans, so I think there's a lot of things that go into it."

With golf fans waiting for someone to re-establish control, and the attention on McIlroy and Woods, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood will look to continue a recent trend of first-time major winners and ditch the unwanted tag of Best Players Without a Major. First-timers have stolen the headlines at the last six majors, and not one of them has been an American.

Westwood has begun seeing putting coach Dave Stockton and sports psychologist Bob Rotella in an effort to bag his first major. The Rotella connection would seem to be a direct result of Darren Clarke's consultations with "Dr. Bob" just prior to winning the British Open at Royal St. George's last month.

"It can only do him good," Clarke said.

"Darren is a good one to consult with regards to which psychologist would be the best," Westwood said, "having been through all of them, pretty much."

Atlanta Athletic Club is a 7,467-yard par 70 on the scorecard, but McIlroy said it's not playing long because the ball is flying in the high heat. Still, AAC's final four will be stern, starting with the 260-yard, par-3 15th hole and ending with the watery, 507-yard, par-4 18th. "You can make a few birdies around the turn," McIlroy said, "and then you've sort of just got to hang on for dear life coming in."

Woods said he expects the PGA of America to move the tees up on the 425-yard sixth and/or the 372-yard 13th, turning one or both into drivable par 4s. That will get the attention of aggressive players like Phil Mickelson, runner-up to David Toms at the 2001 PGA Championship here. Mickelson has won eight times in Georgia: two Tour Championships, three BellSouth Classics and three Masters.

At 41, he is aiming for his fifth major title since breaking through at the 2004 Masters when he was 33.

That ought to be comforting to the Englishmen now regarded as the best without a major. Told that world No. 2 Westwood, 38, was trying to adopt a more carefree attitude for the season's final major, No. 1 Donald, 33, said he could relate.

"I definitely understand it," he said. "You know, majors are in this day and age made out to be the biggest deal. People put a lot of pressure on the guys who haven't won, like myself and Lee and Adam and whoever else it might be. There's pressure to win them. Sometimes you can go to these events and just try too hard."