ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Tiger Woods smiled and bantered with Vijay Singh when they found themselves aiming for the same hole on the practice putting green at the 95th PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club. Woods, in a pink shirt and gray slacks, bent over and fished three balls out of the cup, kindly tossing two to Singh, whose best days are clearly behind him at age 50. A photographer friend congratulated Woods on his victory at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last weekend, his fifth win so far this season, and Woods smiled and said, "How about that?" He chatted with the guy for two or three minutes before moving to a new hole on the green. Webb Simpson approached and they shook hands, chatted.
The fourth major of the year hasn't even started yet, and already it's all about Woods, whose easy smile and relaxed demeanor spoke volumes Wednesday, and Phil Mickelson, who won the British Open just 17 days ago. Yes, the PGA has officially dropped "Glory's Last Shot," but the tournament's new slogan may as well be, "How cool would it be if Tiger and Phil battled it out late Sunday at a major?"
Reality check: There are 154 other players in the field. Reality check: About a third of those other players could easily win this week. Reality check: Shaun Micheel. Who saw that guy winning the PGA here in '03? He was 169th in the world! He barely even got in the tournament! He'd never won before and hasn't won since!
"People want [Woods and Mickelson] to be together for a rivalry's sake," said Hunter Mahan, whose last two competitive rounds of 67-64 put him in the lead halfway through the Canadian Open before he withdrew to fly home for the birth of his daughter, Zoe. "But that's pretty tough in golf, to have rivalries, with the depth of the field and everything and the quality of players, it's hard to just have two guys battle it out each week. Golf is not like that. There are just too many good players."
Case in point: The last 19 majors have been won by 17 different people, a list that includes 15 first-time major winners. Mickelson (2010 Masters, 2013 British) and Rory McIlroy (2011 U.S. Open, 2012 PGA Championship) are the only two players with more than one major over that span. Woods, of course, has none.
"It just proves that golf is very, very strong right now," said Ian Poulter, who tied for third at the PGA at Kiawah last summer and is coming off a wild final-round 67 that earned him a tie for third at the British Open at Muirfield last month. "There are lots of people that are going to put themselves in position again this week and have a chance of winning their first major."
If you had to assign names to those people, Poulter wouldn't be a bad place to start. He seems to be coming closer and closer to reconciling the Ryder Cup Ian, who can't miss on the greens, with the previously hot-and-cold stroke-play Ian.
Mahan might be the hottest player no one is talking about, owing to his mad dash back to Texas to be with his wife as she gave birth to the couple's first child. Mahan mentioned "some great opportunities to make birdies" at Oak Hill.
Masters champion Adam Scott shot 68-66 in the second and third rounds at the Bridgestone (T14) and pronounced his game in "some kind of form" as he plots out a plan to "bookend the Masters with a PGA Championship for this year."
McIlroy, whose best result this year is a T2 at the Texas Open, is bound to play his way out of a slump eventually. He has been watching videos of himself at his best — namely his 2012 PGA win at Kiawah — and after playing Oak Hill's back nine on Wednesday he said he loves the course and played, "really, really well."
But wait! What about Henrik Stenson? He tied for second at the Bridgestone and was solo second at the British. Stenson's got to be on the short list at Oak Hill.
How about Jordan Spieth? Okay, he's only 20, but he shot three straight 65s and then won the John Deere in a playoff last month. Gary Woodland just revived his career with a win at the Reno-Tahoe Open on Sunday. And with the PGA being the one major that's set up the most like a regular PGA Tour event…
Miguel Angel-Jimenez, 49, led halfway through the British Open but faded to a tie for 13th place. Don't look now but he just tied for fourth at the Bridgestone. Jason Day, 25, finished solo third at this year's Masters and T2 at the U.S. Open. Lee Westwood's results in the first three majors (T8, T15 and T3) suggest he could be leading up to something, namely his first major championship win, at Oak Hill. Newly minted U.S. Open champion Justin Rose missed the cut at the British Open and finished T17 at the Bridgestone, but he did shoot 69-69 on the weekend.
As per tradition, Rose will tee off with the year's other two major winners, Mickelson and Scott, in the first two rounds. They'll go off No. 1 at 1:45 p.m. Thursday. (Woods, Keegan Bradley and Davis Love III go off 10 at 8:35 a.m.)
"Obviously Phil and I have had some good golf over the last eight or nine months if you include the Ryder Cup," said England's Rose, who beat Mickelson in Ryder Cup singles before turning him back at the U.S. Open at Merion earlier this summer. "We've had some nice head-to-head battles and had some fun out on the golf course. So for me it's a really, really fun pairing the next couple of days."
The rough is up this week, but it's graduated rough, punishing the big misses more than the small ones. The greens, while severely sloped, are running relatively slow. Solid shots are expected to be rewarded with good birdie chances.
"I like the setup," Poulter said. "I like the fact that you don't have to hit driver off every single tee. It's a lot of positional play. The greens are very small."
In other words the course is playable, the birdies are out there. Given the state of golf in 2013, there's no shortage of contenders poised to get those birdies. "There are a lot of good players playing golf at the moment," said Westwood, 40, "and major championships are probably harder to win than they ever have been."
And yes, that goes for Tiger and Phil, too.