Not long ago the new face of golf was Rory McIlroy, but then it was Bubba Watson, and now it appears to be Keegan Bradley. That's what happens when you get 16 different people winning the last 16 majors. No player has risen to the top and stuck in the post-Tiger era, making pro golf a pointillist painting that seems to be always on the verge of coalescing. In the final hours before the final major of 2012, the 94th PGA Championship, the picture remains indecipherable here at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island.
Woods last won one of the biggies 18 majors ago, at the 2008 U.S. Open. At 36, he's still five majors short of his stated goal of 19, the number that would bust Jack Nicklaus's career total. Woods will play many other majors, and on Tuesday he mentioned Tom Watson's nearly winning the British Open at 59. Still, if anybody should be feeling urgency at pretty Kiawah, it's not Jim Furyk, who foozled his chance at winning the U.S. Open, or Adam Scott, who did the same at the British Open. It is Woods. No one's going to believe "19" is still in play until he proves it.
(Related Photos: Tiger's major victories)
"Things have progressed," said Woods, the only three-time winner on Tour in 2012. "But still, not winning a major championship doesn't feel very good."
Woods is coming off scores of 68-66 at Firestone last weekend, playing his final 23 holes without making a bogey. He tied for eighth place, and would seem to be a fine pick at the 7,676-yard Ocean Course — the longest track in PGA history — with its wide fairways and perfect, paspalum greens. He absolutely has to have this one, lest doubt be left to fester and grow for yet another seven months. Woods was the first one on the course for practice rounds Monday morning.
Will he get it? In his press conference Tuesday, Woods uttered a new one: "You know, who knows?" It's a very close relative of another Woods favorite, "It is what it is," but this latest aphorism is somehow more appropriate to the times. Golf is as unpredictable now as it was predictable in Woods's prime. Bradley's victory Sunday marked the 11th time this year that the winner has come from at least four shots behind in the final round. The 54-hole leader has found a way to lose nine of the past 12 majors, starting with Woods, of all people, who was upended by Y.E. Yang, of all people, at the 2009 PGA at Hazeltine.
Dustin Johnson, the long-hitting South Carolinian who is one of the favorites this week, has twice snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in that span. He imploded in the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, ultimately won by Graeme McDowell, and was set to join a playoff at the 2010 PGA at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin until he grounded his club in a trampled bunker on 18 — CBS's David Feherty called it "a manger" — incurring a two-stroke penalty. Johnson's bogey 5 turned into a 7, the three-man playoff was down to two, and Martin Kaymer beat Watson for the young German's first and only major victory.
(Related Photos: The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island)
Kiawah is Whistling Straits South — same designer, same unnaturally rugged links, bomber-friendly — and the 2012 PGA leaderboard may look a lot like the 2010 PGA leaderboard. "Whistling Straits is just like this," Watson said.
Bradley, McDowell, McIlroy, Louis Oosthuizen and Watson are the five men with the most to play for after Woods. All are recent major winners, all would dearly love to validate major No. 1 with major No. 2, and all have proven imminently capable of doing so at Kiawah. (Webb Simpson would be on this list but could be rusty in lieu of his post-U.S. Open baby break.)
Although Bradley, who won last year's PGA at Atlanta Athletic Club in his first major championship start, is the hottest player, he'd become a trendy pick to win at Kiawah even before capturing his third Tour win last weekend.
"He's a volcano waiting to erupt," Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said early last week. "He leads the PGA Tour in the all-around statistic. I mean, nobody through the bag is better than this guy. I really think this guy has the makings of going on and being a multiple major championship winner."
McDowell finished T12 at the Masters, T2 at the U.S. Open and T5 at the British. He's as much a volcano as anyone. And his countryman and Ryder Cup partner, McIlroy, may be on the verge of something big as well. McIlroy's moment at Congressional last summer came on a wet course where he could deploy his American-style target-golf to greatest effect. Kiawah is expected to be hit with heavy rain Thursday and Friday, and may reward exactly that type of golf.
Oosthuizen and Watson (and for that matter Simpson) are the wildcards. At least one of them will almost certainly be in the mix Sunday, the most likely candidate being Watson, who came so close to winning at Whistling, and who admitted earlier this week that it's probably time to move on from his Masters victory.
"Being a major champion, it's great," Watson said. "But I don't know, it was like four or five months ago, so we've got to try to do something else now."
Top-ranked Luke Donald, Scott, Steve Stricker and Lee Westwood lead the pack of players who would be elated with just one major championship win. And then there's Furyk, for whom a win would ease the sting of Olympic and Firestone.
Unlike Whistling in 2010, there will be no bunkers on the course; all sand will play as a waste area, so players will be allowed to ground their clubs and pick up loose impediments. Alas, there's a caveat. Said Kerry Haigh, managing director of championships for the PGA of America: "We are going to put rakes in and around many of those sandy areas inside the ropes, and we have posted a notice to the players, mainly to ask them as a courtesy to other players, to kind of rake those areas after they're finished if they cause severe damage; but as there is so much sandy area, there is still likely to be footprints, tire tracks, etcetera, both inside the ropes and outside the ropes." In other words, even with everyone reading from the same rules sheet, a ball that finds a footprint could decide this PGA.
That'll only add to the fun at an already wild-looking tournament. South Carolina's first major will be played on a course with more seaside holes (10) than any other course in the Northern Hemisphere. The last time the world's best golfers tackled Kiawah, at the '91 Ryder Cup, the course won, the U.S. finished second and Europe got the bronze. Three par-4s are at least 494 yards. The par-3 17th hole, which is 223 yards over water, may cause feelings of nausea and blurred vision. Johnny Miller has called Kiawah possibly the hardest course in the world when the wind is up.
Let the free-for-all begin.