With his game in disarray, Whistling Straits will be a tough test for Tiger Woods

December 9, 2011

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — Golf may be a game of misses, but at Whistling Straits, host of the 92nd PGA Championship, beginning Thursday, some of those stray shots may be hard to find, and harder still to get a club on.

At 7,507 yards, and with an assortment of forced carries and audacious hazards, the course fairly whispers, Now would be a bad time to miss your target. That chilling thought echoes if the wind blows, but if the air is calm it can be thick with mosquitoes.

In either case, Whistling Straits intimidates, suggesting very much by design that a bloodletting is imminent.

"I heard a few things about it," said Louis Oosthuizen, the runaway British Open champion at St. Andrews last month and a pre-tournament favorite this week after closing with a 65 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. "It could scar me for life, I guess."

All of which is to say there may be no worse course in the world for Tiger Woods or anybody else to suddenly find his game or play his way into form. Major championship courses are hard by definition, but this one, more than most, is a belief-tester. It looks like a links, because owner Herb Kohler wanted it to, but plays with your head like TPC Sawgrass, because Pete Dye designed it.

Woods tied for 24th place the last time the PGA was held here, in 2004, a middling result for him back in those days. Given the current disarray of Tiger's game, simply making the cut this time around would seem like a monumental achievement.

Last week at the (no-cut) Bridgestone, he finished second to last, averaging 74.5 strokes per round. This, from the No. 1 player in golf (still), on a course, Firestone South, where he'd averaged 67.5 over his previous 40 rounds.

He is in danger of failing to qualify for both the Ryder Cup (he's 10th in the standings; the top eight get in without needing a captain's pick) and the bulk of (if not all of) the FedEx Cup playoffs. One assumes Tiger Woods is woefully low on belief.

"I didn't do a whole lot positively around the golf course," he said after playing a much-scrutinized practice round at the Straits on Tuesday with the Bridgestone winner Hunter Mahan (who beat Woods by a ridiculous 30 shots) and Sean O'Hair.

Although Woods has been working without a coach since Hank Haney left him in May, Tuesday's round became noteworthy when Woods asked Sean Foley, the Orlando-based swing coach to Mahan, O'Hair and Justin Rose, to videotape his swing.

"He was watching Hunter and Sean," Woods said, "and I did ask him to film a couple, [said] I would like to take a look at it, which I did look, so I'm heading the right direction."

Still, for the first time in a decade Woods will go into a major as something other than the betting favorite, and for good reason. He has not won a tournament on Tour in 11 months, and is coming off the worst performance (T78 in a field of 80) of his career. He has been stuck at 14 majors since he won the '08 U.S. Open on a severely injured left leg.

Perhaps looking to change his mojo by changing his facial hair, Woods shaved the goatee he wore in Akron last week.

Phil Mickelson, the 12-1 favorite, is coming off a deflating final-round 78 at the Bridgestone, and revealed Tuesday that he has been treated all summer for a form of arthritis. Apart from his incredible victory at the Masters, he has had a mediocre year.

Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and three others have won twice on Tour in 2010, but golf has entered a weird place during Tiger's upheaval. It's a combination of freefall — the final-round TV rating was down 51% at the Bridgestone — and free-for-all.

For the first time in years, the Player of the Year race is still wide open. Mickelson would take pole position with a win this week, but so would Els, who finished just a shot out of the three-man playoff won by Vijay Singh at the '04 PGA at the Straits. A victory by either man would bolster the narrative of 2010, but the way things have been going, it may be too much to ask.

Two little-known, foreign-born pros, Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell and South Africa's Oosthuizen, prevailed at the U.S. and British Opens, respectively. "That, combined with the way Tiger played last week, I think guys now feel that there are multiple winners, multiple possible winners this week," Paul Casey said. "It's different, not a feeling we've had in a while."

The PGA will include 97 of the world's top 100 players, and of that 97, 73 are foreign-born. Of those, many are not well known.

We may look back on this time as the start of the post-Tiger era, when Woods, Els, Mickelson and Singh were no longer capable of dominating, but nor were younger stars McDowell, Oosthuizen, Rory McIlroy, Anthony Kim, Mahan or Ryo Ishikawa.

We're in the in-between.

Mickelson is as unreadable as ever. Will we see the Phil who aced Augusta for the third time in April? Or the Phil who needed a birdie to join the playoff at the '04 Whistling PGA, but bogeyed? Will we see the guy who shot an opening 66 in Akron last week, or the one who fell apart on the weekend to fumble yet another chance to seize Tiger's No. 1 ranking? (Wisconsin's own Steve Stricker could take over the top spot with a victory this week as well, but would need help from Woods and Mickelson.)

An object in motion tends to remain in motion. Momentum is everything. Respect the streak. On the other hand, Mickelson won this year's Masters the week after missing the cut in Houston.

Adding even more uncertainty is the Straits course, which comes to us from the fever dreams of Dye and the checkbook of Kohler. It has been built and tweaked (the 18th green is new) expressly to create havoc. It's not a true links because you can't play the ball along the ground, and it's not a parkland track, either. Even Dye says he doesn't know how to categorize the place.

Call it a lark land.

And call it controversial. Few additions to the major championship firmament have been more polarizing than Whistling Straits. Groused one former British Open champion of Kohler in '04, "The guy should stick to making toilets."

The Straits is a hybrid; looks like a links course, plays like a TPC with Muppet hair. Length is an advantage, except when it's not, apparently, because relatively short-hitting Justin Leonard and Chris DiMarco joined Singh in a playoff at the '04 PGA.

"It's going to be a difficult test if the wind starts to blow," said Mahan, one of the five players to win twice on Tour in 2010. "You've really got to find your spots off the tee to find your lines. Fairways are going to be important because there are a lot of sharp cliffs where the fairway runs off into deep bunkers and waste areas."

The course features a 600-yard par-5, a few 500-yard par-4s and par-3s where the penalty for a stray tee shot is so severe as to prompt a cold shank from Darren Clarke at the '04 PGA. Clarke was one of the winners from that week, shooting a 7-under 65 to tie for low round of the tournament, but recently said his most enduring memory was the shank in the third round, on the 17th hole. CBS replayed the shot in super slow motion.

Rory McIlroy, who tied for ninth at the Bridgestone, said the Straits is difficult "because you're hitting into such a big area out there and sometimes it's hard to really find a definition of where the left side and the right side of the fairway is."

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised, for this is 2010, the year when neither Tiger nor Phil nor anyone else has taken control. For now, that lack of definition is everywhere you look.